The Center for Celtic Studies program welcomed the public to join them for their annual celebration of Samhain, the Celtic harvest festival celebrated from Oct. 31 to Nov. 1.
This event was free and open to the public with both popular and educational entertainment.
This Celtic New Year celebration was hosted at the Edith S. Hefter Center, accompanied by live Irish music, fortune telling, costume contests, Celtic horror films, and a presentation on Irish artist Harry Clarke.
“It’s just a very fun way of learning about the Celtic world but also having a good time with other people who want to learn the same kind of things,” says José Lanters, the co-director of the UWM Center for Celtic studies, along with Bairbre Ní Chiardha.
Some Samhain traditions include carving turnips instead of pumpkins, singing, dancing, honoring the dead, and making bara brith, sometimes known as “speckled bread”, where they hide tiny objects like coins, rings, and babies to predict the future. There is also a parade in Derry, Ireland, where Samhain is a most popular.
Samhain, also called Oiche Shamhna, means “Halloween Night”. It’s the time of year when the barriers between the layers of the physical world and the spirit world are the thinnest.
“It’s a little bit of the mystical, and there are wonderful legends,” says Merribeth Herbert, who has been studying with Ní Chiardha and John Gleeson in the Celtic Studies department for seven years. “It’s not a dangerous time. It’s a little bit of a scary time, but it’s like scary and fun at the same time. It’s like what our Halloween used to be or should be.”
Herbert is also a Reiki master teacher. At the Samhain celebration, she facilitated the fortune telling game called Puicin. It is named after the Púca, which is a member of the Sidhe, or spirit people, resembling a large horse. Herbert says she knows that Puicin is more than a game and believes that the individual
person and the energies in the universe are telling the fortunes, not her.
“I know my hands get really hot when I’m doing this game with people,” says Herbert. “There’s energetic stuff going on. I’m very tired when I’m done.”
Before the main event, two short films were presented. One was “Tumult”, a Scottish parody of a horror film about violent Vikings in modern-day Scotland. The other was a Nova Scotian parody horror film, and the first Gaelic language short film made in North America called Faire Chaluim Mhic Leoid/The Wake of Calum MacLeod.
The art presentation of Harry Clarke was the favorite part of the evening for Chris Avila-Burke, 25, a junior in the Rad-Tech program at UWM.
“It was….eerie and enthralling,” says Avila-Burke.
The main event was a presentation by Dr. Marguerite Helmers called “A Macabre and Pestilential Vision: The Irish Artist Harry Clarke.” Helmers is a professor of English at UW-Oshkosh and author of “Harry Clarke’s War: Illustrations for Ireland’s Memorial Records, 1914-1918”.
Helmers spoke on how Clarke was like a rock star from that part of the 20th century in Ireland. Becoming well-known for his stained-glass art and book illustrations, he drew inspiration from Charlie Chaplin and Edgar Allen Poe. Helmers presented a slideshow of drawings from “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” written by Poe and illustrated by Clarke. These illustrations were paired with Poe’s stories, such as “Fall of the House of Usher”, “Ligeia”, “Message in a Bottle”, and “Morella”.
“I’ve been trying to allude to Clarke’s ability to create other worlds, what we call heterotopias, how through illustration he brings to the real world into contact with the world beyond the veil, that of the spirit, the grotesque, the decayed, the living and the dead,” says Helmers, ending her presentation.
Helmers is currently working on an edited collection of new essays called “Harry Clarke & Artistic Visions of the New Irish State” alongside Angela Griffith and Róisín Kennedy.
“The center on campus offers classes on Irish language and all various aspects of the Celtic world from history to literature, to anthropology,” says Lanters.
Holly Kirkpatrick, 23, is a Pagan, Linguistic Anthropology major in her 6th year at UWM. She actively celebrates Samhaim and showed up to support the CCS.
“I started learning Irish my first semester at UWM, and it wasn’t long before I fell in love with everything Irish – the language, the culture, the folklore, everything,” says Kirkpatrick.
This lead to her partaking in the semester abroad program to Ireland, which she says wouldn’t have been possible without the Center for Celtic Studies and all the faculty, students, and volunteers who have kept it going all these years.
Herbert shows her love for this program by having been to Ireland seven times in the past eight years.
“I don’t do normal languages,” says Herbert. “I’ve done Hebrew. I’ve done Welsh. I’ve done Norwegian. The one I really fell in love with was Irish. I love what Celtic Studies does. John Gleeson and Bairbre Ní Chiardha have been great assets for us.”
Lanters wishes to spread the word about what the center on campus does and that they have this outreach to the broader community in Milwaukee.