Hallowe'en has always been an enjoyed festival celebrated in Irish rural homes. The Ancient Irish celebrated Samhain, the first day of winter, on November 1st. The eve of this day, Oíche Shamhna, October 31st is known as Hallowe'en. It provides a welcome break from lengthening Autumn evenings, and has traditionally been a time of feasting, dressing up and games.
Hallowe’en was thought to be a 'ghost night' when forces from the Otherworld came into our world, with spectres such as banshees, fairies and evil spirits abounding. The fear of being abducted by one of these led to people disguising themselves as ghouls, wearing scary masks or costumes.
The rural Irish were a superstitious and religious people and on Hallowe’en the ritual of sprinkling Holy Water in the home was seen as particularly important: especially around the threshold to guard against evil spirits. Little crosses made from wood or straw were made and hung in the house to increase protection. Recalling the legend of Jack O’Lantern, a hollowed out turnip carved with a spooky face was lit and left in windows and doorways on Hallowe’en night, to frighten away evil spirits.
On Hallowe’en night only, the souls of ones’ ancestors were believed to return to the family home. As discussed in this blog, the seats closest to the hearth were considered to be of honour in the Irish household, and an ancient custom was to reserve those seats for the returning dead.
Food: Two foods in particular are associated with Hallowe’en in Ireland: barm-brack and colcannon. The ingredients of both foods emphasise the bounty associated with harvest time. Colcannon is a side dish made of boiled potatoes, cabbage and chopped onions mashed together with butter.
The latter is a sweet bread containing dried fruit (‘breac’ means ‘speckled’ in Gaelic). Small objects (wrapped in fabric) were baked into the bread, these were said to predict events for the coming year: The slice containing the ring meant marriage; a coin or bean meant wealth; while a piece of fabric meant poverty.
Games such as ‘Snap Apple’ and apple bobbing were played and still form part of Halloween entertainment in Ireland. Many Hallowe’en traditions, such as those described here, originated in Ireland and were spread by Irish emigrants across the world and continue to this day.
Trying to predict the future was a popular Hallowe’en past time as it was believed to be the best time to do so. Some practices assisted in this; a blindfolded person might be given bowls of objects to select which foretold their future: the bowl containing water predicted emigration; food indicated prosperity; or clay meant death for example.
People also practised marriage divination at this time: it was believed one’s future husband or wife might appear in a dream on Hallowe'en night if certain objects were placed under the pillow (for example iron objects, apples, cabbages leaves, yarrow).
Paintings and sketches of ‘Snap Apple Night’ by Daniel Maclise (1811-1870)
Hallowe’en Turnip from the National Museum of Ireland (Folklife collection).
The Schools Folklore Collection
National Museum of Ireland