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Rhythms of the Year

Learn about the traditional agricultural year in Ulster.

Explore our seasonal events
A view of country scenery: green fields, blue skies, and white clouds.
Until recently, the majority of people in Ulster lived a rural life. Rural life was, and still is, set by the timings of the land that people rely on for food, work, textiles, and even building materials.

One unique aspect of this was the celebration of quarter days. These four days marked the changing of seasons, and were often celebrated with feasting and rituals for protecting the home, animals and farms. 

Quarter Days

The celebration of quarter days is thought to originate in pre-Christian practices, but over time, many local practices and rites adapted to the needs of celebrants and became associated with key dates in the Christian year. After industrialisation and urbanisation, the traditional celebration of quarter days became less common in rural areas, with new practices associated with Halloween and St. Brigid's Day becoming much more common. 

The four quarter days were usually celebrated on the first of February (Imbolc); May (Bealtaine); August (Lughnasadh); and November (Samhain). The celebrations of these days usually began the evening before the day itself.


Imbolc, more commonly known today as St. Brigid's Day, was celebrated on the first of February. It has been speculated that pre-Christian celebrations of this day were associated with the Celtic Goddess Brigit, and later became associated with Saint Brigid. As the heralding of spring, St. Brigid's Day was a time to ask for protection of the livestock and an abundant season for the household. People would weave St. Brigid's crosses and hang them in the home and in the byres. They would also leave white cloth or rags hanging outside, so that in the night a passing St. Brigid would touch and thus bless the cloth. These pieces of cloth were known as the Bratóg Bríde and were kept as it was believed that they had healing properties.


Bealtaine - also commonly spelt Beltane - was celebrated on the first of May. It marked the start of summer, and the return of the brighter days. With the bulk of sowing complete, it was time to move the cattle to pasture - a practice known as 'booleying'. This heritage practice, which has largely disappeared, is represented in some of the vernacular buildings in the museum. 

Cattle featured prominently in traditional rituals on Bealtaine, such as passing the herd through two bonfires, a practice which would prevent the cows from being charmed. Homes were decorated with flowers. Yellow flowers in particular were seen as protective charms against evil spirits or the week folk (faeries). Buttercups and primroses were left on windowsills to protect the home. 


Lughnasadh, also known as Lammas, marked the beginning of the harvest season. It was observed on the first of August with a feast, to celebrate the hopefully-successful harvest. The first potatoes of the season might be dug up and eaten. As more crops were harvested, the flails were ready for thrashing. 

Harvest knots were popular, weaved from straw and often worn on the lapel of a jacket. They became associated with courting as they were gifted to a sweetheart. They were also called 'lover's knots' as the twisted straw could form a double loop which looked like a heart shape. 


Samhain is one of the most well-known quarter days, having inspired the modern celebration of Hallowe'en. Samhain was celebrated on the first of November, also known as All Saints' Day in the Christian calendar. Treats and games were popular, especially those relating to divination. Reflecting the adjacent religious holiday and the looming winter, some believed that the spirits of the dead or malevolent spirits roamed the earth, so superstitions around walking outside after dark, especially alone, developed. Young men were known to enjoy playing practical jokes this night. Young women enjoyed divination games relating to love and marriage.

Samhain marked the end of the harvest season, and there were feasts and celebrations that the crops were gathered and stored, and winter crops could now be sown. One common game was to try and cut down the last sheaf (last part of the crop to be sown). Once cut, it was twisted and plaited and often hung over the kitchen table.