“A people who don’t have a knowledge of their past is like a tree without roots”

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An Irish Halloween: The way it was

Ghosts of the dead return to their earthly homes on the eve of All Hallows. The fairies, underground hosts of the Tuatha de Danann, wander freely too. Traipsing between our world and theirs, the ancient ringforts are wide open and a hive of activity. Lights are seen going from one fairyfort to another:

'Out in the boglands of brown

In a maze of silver white,

Over the bawn and the clover fields

In a whirling wild delight,

A woman latches the door,

And signs the cross on her brow,

For, Glory to God, the lights are near,

And the fairies passing now.'

(Nora Murray, Will-O'-the Wisps)


Not so long ago people enjoyed pastimes that had beeen handed down for generations. In the home, turnips or mangels were hollowed out, faces carved on them and a lighted candle put inside. These were left on the porch or carried about. Surreal and ghostly in the dark they were a great amusement for children. Great fun, but their origins convey a deeper meaning. The lamps are an impersonation of the dead and other spirits thought to return on the night. By assuming the character of the departed in the form of spectral lights people invoked a protection from the power of the otherworld. In Somerset, England and in Wales, these turnip lanterns were hung on gateposts with the specific purpose of deterring evil spirits.

Tricks, Treats and Games

Just as at Christmas, treats were also anticipated at 'Halloweve'. For the children there was great excitement as the day drew closer. The monotony of a diet of home baked bread was going to be broken, at least for a little while. Hazel nuts were in plentiful supply in the shops. Even the poorest house had an abundant supply. Those lucky enough to live near hazel groves could pick their own.

Kathleen, Brigid and Fergus Murtagh

There was sure to be apples in the house for ‘ducking’ games and for eating as well. Orchards were few and far between and owners had to be particularly vigilant for midnight raiders. There was no amnesty at this or any other time of year for pilferers. The unlucky culprit who got caught was shown no mercy nor did he expect any.

A raisin cake was the highlight of the evening. Delight lit my mother's face as she squandered her small store of money on nuts, apples and raisins. At other times of the year we might have to count the pennies but at Hallowe’en and Christmas the compulsions of frugality were forgotten for a while. Better an empty purse than a table without a raisin cake. ‘Pratie’ bread or ‘boxty’ sizzled on the fire — it wouldn’t be Hallowe’en without it! It sputtered and spat in lakes of butter in the cast iron oven over the hot coals.

To understand the excitement about simple delights that we now take for granted we might recall the plain diet of the age. Two or three staples provided the entire selection of food. Choice didn't exist. Until the 1960's shops amounted to a shelf or two. Gourmet belonged to fantasy. Eating was a necessity, not an indulgence.

As night fell on Halloweve there was a fevered rush to get the evening work done. Suppertime couldn’t come quickly enough and when darkness eased in around us and the lamp was lit, well, all was right with the world!

Halloween at the Murtaghs

The feast over, the table cleaned off, it was time for games. This was one of the few occasions when even my father, a dour countryman, took an interest in children's pastimes. He watched with amusement as we tried to get a bite out of the apple that weaved back and forth on a string that he had fastened to the ‘couplin’, or laughed as we ducked with gasping breath into the water-filled basin for the sixpences or shillings that lay at the bottom. Any treasure hunter lifting a coin with his teeth or lips got to keep it.

'Trick or Treat'

Until recently youths in country places went out on November Eve leaving a trail of mischief as they impersonated the capricious

spirits of folklore — a 20th century vestige of ancient beliefs. The American "Trick or Treat" was unknown; there were no witches, bats or pumpkins. Visits were made only at the Christmas/Solstice season when the Mummers went from door to door singing, dancing and reciting. Or on St Stephen's Day with the Wrenboys. They were very old customs which have lost their popularity and become relatively unknown to today's youngsters as the new pastime has taken over.

There may not have have been trick or treaters in Sligo — but the spirits were out! Evidence of the previous night's activities greeted church-goers as they walked to Mass on All Saints Day: carts with one or no wheel, gates missing, cabbage-strewn roads. Worshippers kept a sharp lookout and were seldom disappointed! As rascality was traditional on this night there was a more lenient attitude towards the culprits if they were caught — as long as the pranks didn’t go too far and there was no excessive damage to person or property. Mercy depended on the eye of the beholder and the good or bad humour of the victim.

A favourite trick was to fasten the front and back door of a neighbour’s house from the outside and then climb up on the roof to block the chimney sending clouds of smoke into the kitchen below. If there were ramblers in the house, so much the better. With the doors tied there was no chance of the hooligans getting caught.

The school gate, symbol of incarceration for successive generations of young people, was always a target. It came off the hinges easily and was sure to be missing on the morning after Hallowe’en. Retribution from outraged teachers was just as certain on the next schoolday. The first morning after the fairies had been out was taken up with detective work. Dire consequences were promised if the missing gate was not returned forthwith. Some of the more audacious boys looked forward to the encounter. Pacts were made, or threats imposed to draw the weaker souls into bonds of silence.

A 20th cent. harvest scene in Sligo, Ireland

Older and more energetic pranksters indulged in more complex tricks. A favourite was to take a neighbour’s ass-cart, dismantle it, and then reassemble it inside one of the outbuildings. Everyone got a good laugh the next morning when the unfortunate owner, having searched for the missing cart, discovered it in such an unlikely place. It took more than one man to put it there and it would take more than one to recover and reassemble it. Assistance had to be sent to accomplish the job. Often it was the helper who joined most enthusiastically in the scolding who had the biggest hand in planning and executing the raid.

Another choice prank was to take the cart up to a gate, bring the shafts through the bars and then harness the ass to the other side. This was quite an unusual sight in the morning and very funny — to everyone except the owner of the team.

To turn sense into nonsense, to make us laugh at ourselves was the thrust of Hallowe'en. Sometimes it exceeded the limits. One year, in our village, a horse-cart wheel was taken and rolled down a steep hill that led to the sea. The heavy wheel must have gathered immense speed as it careened to the bottom of the hill, crossed another road and plunged over a cliff face and into the water several hundred yards away. Someone could have been killed. It was a dangerous act, nobody thought it funny and it never happened again.

One of the most amusing spectacles I have ever seen on a November morning was the sight of a flagpole dropped through the chimney of an abandoned house. Adorning the top and fluttering magnificently in the breeze was a pair of long johns stolen from someone’s clothesline. In the next village a farmer well known for his bad humour, kept the whole parish amused for days by his efforts to chase away a “strange” horse, which was later revealed, after a shower of rain, to be his own horse disguised by a coat of whitewash.

Sometimes we pulled heads of cabbage in the fields and hung them on doors or threw them about the roads, or we hurled turnips at a house where we thought a lively chase might result. If there was no danger, it was no fun

Children go from house to house now in shop bought costumes in search of treats. How much more exciting for them had they ever known the magic and wild freedom of nocturnal Halloween raids when young people pillaged and roamed the dark roads and fields with the ghosts and spirits of Samhain for accomplices. Had they ever had an opportunity to experience it, I feel youngsters today would much prefer the old anarchic festival!


For books and information on Irish customs and traditions click HERE

For a 'Morning Ireland' TV3 discussion on Halloween click HERE




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