Irish Halloween Traditions



Traditionally you don’t wonder abroad on Halloween night, this is the night when the link between the  human and spirit worlds is most open. You never know who you will meet, a long dead relative back to warn you of an impending disaster (that ghost would technically be a friendly visit as the warning gives you time to prevent or allow for the events to come). There are also ghosts, faeries and such like who can be malicious or just old fashioned nasty, either to the world in general or maybe just you.
Light now officially gives way to Dark. In the Celtic calendar this was new-year’s, as the sun will be born from the darkness as the winter gives way to spring and summer. So apart from the celebrations of the feast, there was also the sensible precaution of staying in; remember most of the faeries and others who would visit would need to be invited in to do any mischief. So what do you do on a dark night when you have to have the kids and the in-laws all at home, yu play a game and if it works you do the same. It also helps if the food is entertaining. As with any regular event, we repeat ourselves and traditions start, here are a few associated with Halloween:


Ah yes, boiled mashed potatoes mixed in with a mixture of Kale or  Curly Kale (cabbage) and onions. The onions should be finely chopped and raw. The Kales should be soaked in boiling water or steamed for about a minute to soften it. I personally pull it from the steps to make it less chewy with the spuds. Some traditions put a coin in the mix for a lucky person to find, indicating good fortune for the year ahead.

Speaking of coins
Barn Brack (Bairin Breac)
This is a fruit filled sweet-bread, at first glance it resembles an Italian Panitoné but is usually heavier and served as a bread pan or round, it is essentially a fruit cake. However, like the colcannon, there is an element of looking to the future. Traditionally when it is being cooked , a number of items are added, a rag, a coin and a ring. The rag suggested poverty, the coin wealth and the ring, well you guessed it. Each person is given a slice of the breac to see what fortune awaits. Thankfully the tradition of the bairin Breac is alive and well. Other items placed in the breac, include some wood as a walking stick , suggesting the finder will have travels in the year ahead, a thimble or a button would divine that the finder would be a spinster or bachelor for ever.


Halloween Costumes

One of the most visible and enjoyable aspects of the Halloween is ofcourse the costumes. They are essentially camouflage, after all when you have to be about on a night full of ghosts faeries and daemons you are going to want a way to avoid them. These “craturs” are using the night to wonder the Earth and ocaissionally  pass a message to particular humans (good or bad), given that you don’t know who these faeries are or what kind of beast they are, so the best thing to do is avoid them, and the best way to avoid them is to not look human, to look like one of them.


Trick or treat

One of the reasons you might want to be out on Halloween  night  is to” trick-or-treat”. It should be noted that this is regard as an Americanism, with the traditional Irish call of “anything for Halloween” now being replaced. It is thought that this tradition arose from the Druidic practice of collecting food stuffs from peoples in the community. This food is to appease the gods and ghosts who would visit, what was not used was given to the local poor. The giving of this food would bring good –fortune to a person’s land and livestock for the year ahead. Those who did were not as generous in their offerings as they should be usually had a trick or prank played on them, nothing too serious but enough that their lack of generosity was noted and served as an reminder not to do so again next year.


The Halloween Lantern

It was traditional to carve a suitably nasty and scary  face out of foodstuffs such as turnips and hang them on gate posts, doors or other places of entry or water crossings such as bridges to scare actual faeries and ghosts and prevent them from entering your lands and causing issues. If you hollowed out the turnip and placed a candle in  it, the strength of the talisman was increased. The jack O’Lantern tradition also has an Irish origin (or so we claim!).  According to tradition (again), our friend Jack was a hard drinking, foul-mouthed gambling blacksmith. It was during a card game that Jack ran in to some trouble at a poker game and ended up having to make a deal with the Devil for his soul, Jack got the better of the Devil (or so it seemed) and the Devil gave Jack what he needed, but also the guarantee that the Devil would never take his soul. Happy days! Or were they?  Well happy enough until Jack died and his sould made its way to Heaven, only to be refused entry because of his life-style when alive. No being able to enter Heaven he was sent back down to earth on the way to Hell. The Devil stopped him there and “honoured” his agreement with him and not take Jack’s soul, so out of Heaven and Hell, Jack had no choice but to wonder the high-ways and bi-ways of Ireland for all eternity. He was given a turnip lantern with nothing more than a glowing ember in it to light his way on his eternal journey along the laneways of Ireland.


As we have seen, it is not to advisable to walkabout on Halloween night, so staying in needed to be entertaining. In the early years cable TV or any TV for that matter was not really an option, so entertainment had to be provided by the people themselves, some of the games still in practice include:


Bobbing Apples and Snap Apple

Here a selection of apples are placed in a basin or bowl of water and each person has to lift one out with their mouth without  using their hands (which should be behind their backs). Should you try this at home, be prepared to get wet. Now, if you don’t want to get wet there is another version where an apple is tied to a piece of string and suspended from the ceiling to about the height of a person’s mouth.  The players are then blind-folded and brought to the hanging apple. Again the intention is to bite in to the apple and take it. Why Apples? Well, they were and still were indigenous and plentiful, also another legend associated with Samhain, was that of the Pucha (puca) an evil faery. Traditionally all crops must have been harvested by Samhain, this included the apples, if they were no, the Pucha would spit  (or urinate, depending on the version) on any unharvested  apples making them inedible, as consequence families usually had an abundance of apples about.



The tradition of the bonfire is perhaps one of the oldest and most significant. Each year the flames and fires of the old year were extinguished. At Samhain, under the guidance of the Druids a new flame was lit and from that all fire would be symbolically lit for the year ahead.  The fire represented the new light of the sun which would renew in the spring, this was new light, new life, the new year. It was also seen as a safe way way to scare off the faeries who might appear from the underworld on this night. Large amounts of noise and commotion also helped…

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