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The classic statement regarding what an Óenach actually was remains that of F.J. Byrne in his 1973 book Irish Kings and High-Kings:

‘[the óenach] was an important event in the calender of a rural society, and was at once political assembly, market-fair (the sense of Modern Irish aonach), and an occasion for general jollification. It corresponds very closely to the Scandanavian and Icelandic Thing. Games and Horse-racing were an essential element of the óenach. There is little doubt that these were funerary in origin, and that the ‘fair’ was held on the site of an ancient tribal cemetery’

But how true is this? How central was the economic aspect, and the market/fair? Moreover, does the evidence support this institution being funerary in origin, and indeed, is there evidence to suggest that judicial and legal functions may have principal aspects of an óenach?

Please express your opinion and contribute to establishing a debate about what exactly was the role of the óenach in early Irish society.

A select bibliography pertaining to assembly places and practices in Ireland and abroad can be found by clicking here: Óenach Bibliography

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One Comment

  1. I believe that in its origins the oenach was primarily religious in origin, consisting of games to honor the aspect of the earth goddess associated with crops and the harvest. These were funeral games, but specifically games to honor the goddess whose annual “death” was symbolized by the harvest of the grain. This is reflected in the fact that so many of the assemblies were at Lughnasa and were named for female figures such as Tailtiu, Macha, Ailend, and the like. That the games appear to have focused heavily on horse races would seem to be linked to the fact that the goddess herself was often seen as taking the form of a horse, as of course was the chief of the gods, Eochaid..

    In a society with a settlement pattern made up of farmsteads scattered across the landscape, it would be natural for a gathering such as that at Lughnasa to assume other functions that were most easily carried out when the population was gathered together, such as carrying out legal proceedings, arranging marriages, trade, and so on. Hence, over time, any such gathering would come to be considered an oenach. I believe the sacred nature of the assembly sites and their central role in the life of the tribes would also lead to their becoming royal cemeteries.. Thus, these aspects were, I’m convinced, secondary to the original ritual role of the assembly and of the place chosen for it.


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