Traditionally, in the Gaelic (Irish and Scottish) cultures, Samhain was a time – among other things – for honouring the ancestors. Samhain, as you’ll be aware, was a ‘thin’ time of year: a time when the veil between worlds thins, and the Otherworld is more accessible. Or perhaps when the Otherworlds are more accessible, because it’s entirely likely that (as in the Norse tradition, for example, which speaks of nine worlds) there would have been more than one Otherworld in those old cosmologies.
So I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my own ancestors, because I finally overcame scepticism, succumbed to curiosity, and did one of those DNA tests that most of my friends and colleagues seem to have had done years ago. Yes, I’m a little behind the times. And, as these tests almost always do, it shed some new light on some old things.
Looking at my immediate family, my very recent ancestry seems to be around 25% Irish (mother’s maternal side) and 50% Scottish (father’s side), with 25% that looked likely, from what we knew about the places my grandparents came from, to be a bit of extra Scottishness and a bit of far north-eastern English (the place where I was born). Genetically, this picture is compatible – 26% Irish, but all of the remainder localised around what can best be described as the old Brythonic north – incorporating the north of England, lowland Scotland (the Border country), Cumbria – and North Wales.
So that’s something of a perceptual shift for me, having focused for so long on the Gaelic traditions not just of Ireland, but of Scotland. With an MA in Celtic Studies – actually from the University of Wales – I’m well aware of the resonances between the Brythonic and Gaelic traditions, both of which were part of my studies – but I’m also very much aware of the differences.
As I slowly approach something resembling elderhood, I find myself thinking more about ancestors than I’ve ever done before. Wondering about the kinds of ancestors I had; wondering about the kind of ancestor I’ll become. Wondering always about belonging, and the strange resonances of certain places in my life. So, I’m going to be spending a little time focusing more on that Brythonic tradition which apparently represents 71% of my heritage. On the Old North for sure, but especially on Wales, which has a rich and fascinating literary and folk culture that, like the Irish tradition, is heavily focused around place.
Wales was a second home to me for around 30 years, from the many years of holidays and weekend escapes we took there during my teens, to the decades my mother then spent living there once I’d headed off to university, married to a native Welsh speaker for whom English was always a genuine struggle. Now, of course, I’m married to a Welshman myself, who is beginning finally (having mastered Scottish Gaelic, two dialects of modern Irish, and now being deeply immersed in Middle and Old Irish) to be curious about his own language and native tradition.
Samhain, for me, is many things – but it is above all a Trickster Time. A time when, if there’s a need for it, or even the slightest glimmer of an openness to it, I tend to be shaken out of my complacency and challenged in new directions. And I like that. Stasis has never had much resonance for me. I like the surprising things in life. I need to shift, to flow, to transform, and grow. So I guess all of that is why, over the next few years, I’m going to be spending some significant time in Wales.
All of which brings me to what I wanted to share today: a conversation, on my podcast, ‘This Mythic Life’, between me and the lovely Angharad Wynne, on the resonances between aspects of Samhain, and the Otherworld, in the Irish and Welsh traditions. I hope you enjoy it! You can listen via the usual podcast subscription channels, or here on my website.