Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Irish origins of Hallowe'en

Paula researches Hallowe’en in Ireland

My current ‘work in progress’ takes place in Ireland in October, and so I needed to check how Hallowe’en is celebrated there. It didn’t surprise me to discover that the pubs and clubs in Temple Bar, one of the ‘tourist’ areas of Dublin, hold Hallowe’en parties, as do many other pubs everywhere in Ireland. There are also many other Hallowe’en events, ranging from ghost hunting at Bunratty Castle in County Clare to a pumpkin parade and firework display at Virginia in County Cavan.

It’s hardly surprising that Ireland celebrates Hallowe’en, since today’s festivities owe their origins to Samhain, a Celtic/Gaelic festival which pre-dates the Christian era. This was celebrated originally in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, from sunset on October 31 to sunrise on November 1, and marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the winter, the transition from the light to the dark.

Samhain was thought to be the time when the door to the ‘Other World’ opened, allowing the spirits of the dead (the Aos Sidhe) to come into world, and people believed they had to be propitiated with gifts of food and drink. The Celtic Druids disguised themselves in elaborate costumes and masks, probably intended to scare away the evil spirits. They went from door to door, reciting verses in exchange for food. Divination of the future also played a part in the festival, often involving apples or nuts.

Fast forward several hundred years, and in the 9th century, the Church designated November 1st as All Saints or All Hallows Day, to commemorate the saints who did not have their own special day. The night before became known as All Hallows Eve, which, over time, became known as Hallowe’en, and continued some of the customs of Samhain.

In Ireland, the traditional meal at Hallowe’en includes Colcannon (mashed potato with kale and onion), with wrapped coins hidden in the potato for children to find, and the Barnbrack Cake (a fruit bread). In the cake are hidden a piece of rag, a coin, and a ring. If you get the rag, your financial future is doubtful, but the coin represents a prosperous year to come. The ring, of course, is a sign of a new romance, or continued happiness in an existing relationship.

There were other methods of divining the future. One involved leaving an ivy leaf in a cup of water overnight. If the leaf is still perfect the next morning, then the person is sure to have 12 months good health until the following Hallowe’en. If not … well, draw your own conclusions.

Single girls could find out more about their future husband by going out into the fields and pulling up a cabbage. If the girl’s cabbage had a large amount of earth attached to the roots, her future loved one would be rich.

The origin of carving pumpkins is uncertain, but legend says it dates from the 18th century. An Irish blacksmith called Jack made a pact with the Devil, and was denied entry to heaven. He was condemned to wander the earth, and asked the Devil for some light. The Devil gave him a burning coal which he placed inside a gouged-out turnip. This was the original Jack-o’-Lantern.

When the Irish emigrated in their millions to America after the Great Famine, they took their Hallowe’en customs with them, but as there was a bigger supply there of pumpkins, these were used instead of turnips.

‘Trick or Treating’ has evolved from children (and poorer people) going from door to door, and singing or saying prayers for dead souls in return for cakes (known as soul cakes). Until recently, children in Ireland and Scotland were expected to earn their treats (usually apples or nuts) by singing a song, reciting a poem or telling a funny joke.

There are many other traditions, customs, and legends associated with Hallowe’en, which in recent years has grown in popularity here – and, sadly to my mind, in over-commercialisation too, with elaborate and expensive Hallowe’en masks, costumes, and decorations, in place of the homemade ones kids used to be quite happy with!


  1. I've heard of some of the customs, but not all of them. Fascinating!

    1. There are lots of other traditions, some linked to specific parts of Ireland. I spent ages researching (far more than I needed to) because I found it so interesting!

  2. Halloween certainly has evolved from its earliest traditions. Today most folks are consumed with the 'horror' of the holiday. I prefer the cozier aspects that have come about: pumpkins, ghosties (cute ones).

    I'm not a huge fan of trick-or-treaters...most don't bother with a thank you or any other type of politeness...but some of the costumes that come around are quite clever.

    1. Agree about the cozier effects, Debra. I once went on a 'spooky tour' of a medieval hall near here, and that was fun (and not 'horror' at all).
      Our local paper produces a notice you can put in your window saying whether you want trick or treat visitors or not - mainly because older people got scared of kids knocking on their doors and/or of opening their doors to skeletons or vampires!

  3. Around here, Halloween is a candy grab. Country kids go to town, where houses are much closer together.
    I used to make my kids' costumes, and the elementary school had a "safe" event. This was back when every year someone would find pins or a razor blade in a piece of candy.

    1. That sounds really nasty, Ana. Think there was an incident here once with some drug hidden in the candy. Kids here are told only to go to houses of people they (and their parents) know.