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Hallowe'en Customs of Ireland

It is widely known that Hallowe'en comes from a Celtic festival, Samhain. These are some of the customs and folklore connected to October 31.

Origins of Hallowe'en

The Celtic festival of Samhain (November 1) was one of the quarterly festivals including Imbolc, on February 1, Bealtaine, on May 1 and Lughnasa, on August 1. Kings and chieftains held meetings, feast and contests on these occasions. A 10th century tale says that every seven years at Samhain, a gathering was held at Tara, and the High King of Ireland ordained new laws. The Samhain festival marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. As the dark half of the year was now about to begin, the division between this world and the 'other' world lifted for a time. Like the other Celtic festivals, Samhain is celebrated from the eve of the designated day. The festival was appropriated by the Christian church and November 1 was designated All Saints Day. The pagan traditions of Samhain simply carried on as before and were given a superficial Christian sheen: like Samhain, the Christian holiday is a time for remembering deceased family and friends. Indeed, while all four festivals as still celebrated in some fashion, usually Christian, Hallowe'en is the one to bear the most resemblance to its original form.

'Our Lady Correspondent' wrote a piece in the Belfast Telegraph on 31 Oct 1935 which reflects the mingling of the pagan and Christian elements of Samhain:

Barm brack

Known also as báirín breac, or speckled loaf, this is a type of yeast bread baked with sultanas and raisins and eaten with butter. The fruit is often soaked before baking in tea, or sometimes whiskey. It is traditional to add items to the Hallowe'en brack which tell the fortune of whoever gets each item in their slice. One such item was a ring (signifying that the person who found it would be married that year), and many bakers still put these into their bracks. Bewley's, the iconic Dublin café whose bracks were famous, would list the complaints from unwitting visitors to Ireland who had no idea why they found the unwanted items in their cake.

Dressing up, games and practical jokes

John G. Crawford, in the Freeman's Journal of 30 October 1920, reported that people would play tricks on their neighbours such as knocking on doors or stealing farmers' gates. From an Irish Times article from 1969: "Up until about 30 years ago it was still practice for men and women to change clothes and play practical jokes: to tell fortunes, and in Co Clare, to bang on a neighbour’s door with half a loaf, this custom being called ‘battering away hunger'." The Museum of Country Life in Co. Mayo describes the custom of "guising": wearing disguses and masks and going around to frighten the neighbours and collect treats. Hallowe'en games were described by the schoolchildren of the National Folklore Archive's Schools Collection in the 1930s. Agnes Breen of Clonmel Convent, Co. Tipperary, tells that neighbours would go to each other's houses to play games such as tying an apple to a string from the ceiling and, blindfolded, try to catch it in their mouths. A variation on this is given by 69 year old George Perry, a smith from Co. Wicklow, who adds that two crossed poles, each with a lighted candle on it, also hung from the string, representing the departure of the sun and the approaching dark of winter. Others describe bobbing for apples or trying to catch a sixpence in a bowl of water with their mouths.

Nuts and Apples

On 22 October 1920, W.H. Lamb and Co. of Dublin advertised apples by the barrel, and assured the readers of the Belfast Newsletter that they would probably remain firm for Hallowe'en. The Evening Herald of 29 October 1938 reminds readers to eat an apple in front of the mirror, and perhaps the shadowy form of their true love might appear. This custom is also mentioned by George Perry. Nuts and apples were always a part of Hallowe'en celebrations, as both were central to Irish mythology: for example, the salmon of knowledge was said to have eaten hazelnuts which fell into the River Boyne. Crawford described a Donegal custom of clearing up the nutshells so that departed relatives, whose spirits would come to earth on this night, would not tread on them.

The Púca and the 'fairies'

The fairies of Irish and Scottish mythology are the sídhe, or sìth in Scottish Gaelic, who are the original inhabitants of Ireland who agreed to live underground as part of their surrender to the Milesians, the first invaders of Ireland. Forts and fairy rings are thought to be their abodes, and hawthorn trees are often nearby. They can be a benign presence, but exact terrible revenge on anyone who disturbs them or damages their home or a hawthorn, which is a sacred tree. On the other hand, the púca, or pooka, which often takes the form or a horse, is known for causing trouble to anyone unlucky enough to encounter it. Both are thought to roam freely on Samhain, and people would leave food out for the sídhe that night to stay in their good graces.

Fireworks and Bonfires

Bonfires are linked with Hallowe'en and Bealtaine, although in some parts of Ireland St John's Eve (23 June, which is close to summer solstice) was the traditional night for bonfires. The great fire was lit after sunset on Tlachtga, a hill about 20km from the Hill of Tara, and torches would be carried to Tara and other sacred hills to start the Samhain fire. The custom of fireworks on Hallowe'en may have originated in England, as an extension of the traditional fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night on November 5, but it spread, first to the northern counties of Ireland, and later on to Dublin and many other parts of the country. The Anglo-Celt reported on 5 November 1927 that the thatched roof of a business in Belturbet, Co. Cavan, went on fire when a youngster tossed in a squib (small firecracker).

The Belfast Telegram of 2 November 1936

Turnips and pumpkins

It's a commonly known fact that the Jack O'Lantern originated in Ireland and Scotland as the custom of carving turnips (or neeps, as the Scots call them), and that Irish and Scottish immigrants brought it to America where it was adapted - and surely no pumpkin could be as terrifying as this example from the Museum of Country Life. This 1897 article from the Los Angeles Times shows that the imagery of the Jack O'Lantern was well established by the end of the 19th century. Many in Ireland have grown up with the tradition of carving a turnip (or trying to), but Mab Hickman, writing in Irish Press on 27 October 1948, showed that the pumpkin made its way to Ireland several decades ago.

Human sacrifice?

The Books of Leinster and Ballymote tell us that human sacrifice was practised during Samhain in Mag Slecht in Co. Cavan to propitiate a deity called Crom Cruach (Crawford, Freeman's Journal). In fact, we are told that firstborn children were killed brutally to ensure a good harvest. Ali Isaac argues that this may be Christian propaganda, as the story goes on to tell that St Patrick destroyed the idol of Crom Cruach, representing Patrick's victory over paganism. The Killycluggin stone, which has been identified as being linked to the site of pagan worship, does bear the marks of being hit repeatedly by a heavy object. However, as Isaac mentions, there are no other references to human sacrifice in the early literature, and Crom Cruach is referred to elsewhere as being a pagan chieftain who eventually converted to Christianity.

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