The day the world now knows as “Halloween” was originally called Samhain (pronounced ‘Sow-in’) in Ireland, and it was marked by big fires, disguises, and celebrations.
One of the main ideas of Samhain was that the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest on October 31st (the night before All Hallows’ Day). It was a chance to communicate with ancestors, but also a way to upset ‘the little people,’ i.e. fairies, who could judge the living on their past deeds. People left out food and began to disguise themselves as other creatures to protect themselves from any wrongdoing or harm that might come their way. Pumpkin carving also started in Ireland. It is believed to have originated from the Jack of the Lantern Irish folktale, which is a great story in its own right!
The Samhain customs travelled across the Atlantic in the 19th century with immigrants from Ireland and Scotland, and evolved into the grand Halloween celebrations we see today. Back in Ireland, however, there has been a push in recent years to celebrate the ancient pagan traditions. Every October 31st, a giant fire and festival can be found on the hill of Ward in Co. Meath where Samhain is thought to have originated.
Halloween holds vivid memories for me. I grew up in rural Ireland, and when I was young, I would gather with my siblings dressed in whatever we could find in the house at the time. We didn’t have the money to go out to a store and buy a costume we would wear only once. Black bin bags with some face paint was the height of it! Trick or treating was as popular then as it is now, and our village would come alive at 6:00 PM when darkness fell. Halloween also coincided with a week-long break from school, which meant we had to collect a big enough haul of sweets to last us through the week! Bobbing for apples and watching fireworks off in the distance (usually launched by teenagers with concerned parents standing by) were other highlights of the holiday.
Samhain still holds happy memories for a lot of people here in Ireland. Although this year will be different—and we may see a lot of virtual trick or treating—it is still a magical time, full of wonderful stories and folklore from years past.
If you would like to hear some stories about Samhain, then why not have a listen to Eddie Lenihan here.