Irish Halloween Traditions

Events

Halloween is celebrated all over the world, but did you know the roots of the tradition lie firmly in Irish Celtic folklore? 

Halloween, or The festival of Samhain (pronounced “sow-wen”), marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. Celebrated around November 1st, it was the night when the spirits of the departed could return to walk the earth, usually with less-than-friendly intentions. 

Customs sprang up to ward them off, predict what the year ahead would bring, and, hopefully, bring peace and prosperity to all who observed the traditions and beliefs.

Dressing Up to Deceive

One of the most iconic aspects of modern Halloween celebrations is wearing costumes, but it goes way back to early Irish traditions. In bygone times, people would dress in elaborate disguises, not so much to scare away the ghouls but to blend in with them. The belief was that if you could confuse the spirits, they wouldn’t recognise you and so would leave you alone.

Fairies, too, were not always welcome since the bad ones might be after more than your baby teeth – namely your soul. It was thought that throwing the dust from under your shoes at them would force them to relinquish the souls they’d already captured.

Bonfires to Chase Away the Darkness

Lighting bonfires was an important part of Samhain rituals and celebrations. These fires were believed to have protective and purifying qualities. People would carry home embers from the fire in carved turnips, and the bonfire ashes left behind the following day would be spread on crop fields to bring luck to farmers through the coming year.

Predicting the Future

Halloween, or Samhain, being the night when the veil between this world and the next is thinnest, was believed to be the best time of year for divining future fortunes or mishaps. Many of the traditions revolved around marriage and health, with various methods being devised to see into the future.

Barmbrack, a type of fruit-rich bread, might contain a coin or a ring bringing fortune or marriage to whoever was lucky enough to find it in their slice. Similarly, the traditional warming dish of Colcannon, made with boiled potatoes, curly kale or cabbage, and onions might contain a few coins signifying prosperity over the next twelve months.

There were games too, such as Snap Apple, which is similar to apple bobbing. Whoever gets the first bite will be the first to marry.

Some olden traditions were believed to predict health. Placing a blemish-free ivy leaf in water overnight and finding it still spotless in the morning, was a good omen for staying healthy next year.

Carving Pumpkins and Jack-o-Lanterns

The modern Halloween tradition of carving eerie faces into pumpkins originally came from Irish Celtic tradition too, but instead of pumpkins, turnips were carved. Pumpkins became the norm following Irish/Scots emigration to America, probably because pumpkins were easier to get hold of. Today we like them better because of the size and colour. That said, some people still make turnip lanterns, holding to the older traditions.

Trick or treating has early roots too, even though we might think of it as a mostly modern invention. Previously, children would go door to door, singing songs, saying prayers, or telling jokes in return for a soul cake, a type of bread mixed with fruit. Alternatively, scary masks were made for fun and to frighten the neighbours, with friends gathering to make mischief while safely hidden in their disguises. Over the years it evolved into trick or treat.

Present-Day Ghostly Encounters

Ireland is home to numerous eerie sites, and Halloween is the perfect time to explore them. From haunted castles to mysterious graveyards, these places come alive with spine-tingling tales and guided tours during the season. Dublin has its fair share, from the Dublin Ghost Bus to guided walking tours.

Connecting the present with the past and recognising where some of the mad things we get up to at the end of October come from, makes the ghoulish season all the more enjoyable and even meaningful. As you don your witches hat or climb into your skeleton suit this year, give a little nod to age-old customs and traditions, and know you’re following in ancient footprints.