Monday, 14 October 2019


        Halloween screams: the modern festival is fun, and a far cry from its origins in Celtic Ireland.

"DO YOU like the devil?" A young woman hunkers in front of her four year old son and earnestly asks him the question in the middle of the shop. It's not an everyday question, but this is not an everyday event. The woman is buying her child his Halloween costume and right now, he's wavering between the little red devil costume and the Dracula.

Pop-up Halloween shops are relatively new in Ireland, and The Middle One has secured herself a part-time job in one, for the month that's in it. (That's actually herself above, in her shop uniform!) It sells festive decorations and a large range of costumes for children and some for adults. But despite the bigger variety of costumes, in Ireland, the traditional ones remain popular. And there's a good reason for that.

A thirty-something American woman recently told me that Halloween in Ireland is very dark.
"It's a lot more about dressing up and decorating your house and going to parties and having fun in the States,"she said. She didn't approve of Irish Halloween: it went against her Christian beliefs.

Here's the thing: Irish people celebrate Halloween despite our Christian beliefs. Obviously, we're no longer an homogenous, Catholic country. Some of us practice other faiths. Others don't practice any at all. (Although it's interesting that when Christianity was embedding itself in Ireland, its leaders knew they had to replace pagan festivals with religious ones. November 1 is All Saints Day and November 2 is All Souls Day in the Christian calendar.)

But Christianity never replaced Halloween. It simply sits alongside it. Because it doesn't matter whether we're devout Catholics or complete atheists. Most of us mark Halloween because we understand where it comes from. Rooted deep in our culture, in our stories and folklore, and in what we still teach our children at school are the origins and meaning of Samhain.*

Dating back 2000 years, Samhain is an ancient Celtic festival, which ran from October 31 to November 1, and marked the end of Summer and the beginning of Winter: the half-way mark from the lighter part to the darker part of the year. The county of Meath claims to be the birthplace of Halloween, in fact. If you look at its wealth of ancient burial sites: Newgrange, Loughcrew, Knowth and Dowth, it's not hard to see why.

Importantly, it was believed that the veil between the living world and the otherworld was at its thinnest during this time, allowing spirits to come back into the living world. But while we were keen to welcome back our loved ones that had passed on, we knew that other, unwelcome spirits could also come back. 

So we dressed up in scary costumes and wore masks, to disguise ourselves as evil spirits, and ward away the real evil spirits. The Samhain feast was laid out for our ancestors, and as they were in no position to eat it now they were spirits, the food was shared amongst the poor. 

The bonfire was the centre of the Samhain celebrations in the Celtic lands during the early Christian era. Some traditions had every house in a village extinguish the fires in their own hearths (perhaps to make them less inviting to roaming spirits) and relight them with burning embers from the communal bonfire (which they may have brought home in hollowed-out turnips).

This is one of the stories behind the Jack-o-lantern: the turnip carrying the glowing ember from the bonfire, would eventually become the pumpkin with the candle inside it. 

It was the Irish who brought Halloween to other parts of the world, including the United States. And like all other festivals, it grew and changed. Disney costumes may be part of the modern Halloween fun, but have nothing to do with the original festival. But it hardly matters.

What remains on this island, is a willingness to listen to and enjoy the stories and folklore that Irish people still enjoy at this time of year. My earliest scary story outside of the fairy tale books of my childhood, was of the Dublin Hellfire Club. Located in the Dublin mountains, it was built in 1735 on a Neolithic passage tomb, and was used by a cult made up of Lords and noblemen to practice immoral acts and hold black masses to summon Satan.  

The fact that the club was a burned-out ruin, didn't stop us swapping stories on October 31, about the notorious poker game in the club one stormy Halloween. The high-class group of friends gathered to play poker and allowed a passing stranger to take shelter within. Inviting him into the game, they realised their mistake after one of the players bent to pick up a dropped card, and saw the stranger's feet were in fact, cloven hooves.

A similar story is linked to Loftus Hall on Hook Peninsula, in County Wexford. This is probably the official setting for the legendary poker game, but good stories are always borrowed and embellished.

I know young people from rural areas around Ireland who claim to have seen and heard the banshee, the old fairy woman who heralds the death of a family member. The fact that young, educated Irish people don't actually believe the old pagan myths and legends is neither here nor there. They still enjoy being open to the possibility of spirits, especially during this transitionary time.

Symbolic food is also part of Halloween. In ancient Ireland, boys would dress up on All Hallows Eve (October 31) and go 'souling', or begging for soul cakes, which would be offered for the dead. Eventually, this became the modern-day trick-or-treat.

Still served at Halloween in Ireland, is barm brack, sometimes called bairín brack, a sweet, sultana bread, buttered and served with tea. Traditionally, various objects were baked into the bread, including a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin (originally a silver sixpence) and a ring.

Each item carried a meaning to whomever received it. Whoever got the pea would not marry that year, whoever got the stick, would have an unhappy marriage, the rag brought bad luck or poverty, the coin brought the opposite, Whoever got the ring, would be wed within the year.

If single women didn't get lucky with the brack, they could always try Colcannon. A simple meal of mashed potato stirred through with chopped cabbage or kale, the only other added ingredients were butter and a ring. Whichever woman got the serving with the ring, would marry.
Not that any of this matters when you're eight.

And it's children who really appreciate the festival. It's children who will dress up in scary costumes and hideous facemasks, who will trick-or-treat, who will swap stories of the banshee and the púca**: the fairies and ghosts that live on in our culture. It's children who'll beg to go to the local bonfire - and who'll hold sparklers up to the night sky. And so the traditions live on.  

Happy Halloween.

*Pronounced 'sow (rhyming with cow)-in'.
** The Irish spirit that can bring good or bad fortune. Pronounced pooka.

Wishing you a massive hello from Dublin, and a warm welcome to my monthly column.

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Happy reading and take care.             
Sharon. xx