In Ireland, Oíche Shamhna aka Halloween has officially heralded the beginning of the "dark half of the year" since pagan times. Many of the old Celtic traditions marking the festival of Samhain (summer's end) endure to this day, however the Victorian obsession with the macabre introduced others that reflected the times, such as predicting death, marriage or emigration.
How was Hallow'een celebrated in your ancestral county a century or more ago? See below to discover gems recorded from interviewing the old folk back in 1930...
Which traditions passed down through the generations in your family? Join the conversation HERE.
"Whatever point the wind is blowing from on Hallow E'en... it will blow from that direction for the rest of the year."
All Hallows Eve or Hallow'een has long been the day for superstitions and forecasts for fertility and harvesting. The name Samhain is said to derive from Old Irish, meaning "summer's end" (Samhradh = summer) and is the modern-day word in Irish for the month of November. The most ancient of traditions involved lighting bonfires at sunset on Oíche Shamhna (or November Night - October 31) on prominent local landmarks. The Hill of Uisneach in Co. Westmeath is the most famous example. These and other rituals still survive to this day, particularly in the west of Ireland.
So what Tricks and Treats would your 19th-century ancestor have enjoyed at Halloween? Did you know that long ago it was not Barmbrack but rather Colcannon (mashed potatoes, onions and cabbage) that was used for the tradition of finding the ring? Apples and nuts (especially hazelnuts) were traditionally eaten that night of course, being ripe at this time.
Our Irish ancestors' Halloween customs and traditions were diligently recorded by Irish schoolchildren in the late 1930s when the Irish Folklore Commission enlisted schools across the Irish Free State to interview grandparents and elderly neighbours in an initiative to collect local folklore. Many of those interviewed at this time were alive in the mid-19th century.
Featured below are some of the most interesting reported by county (each link will bring your to more from that county in "the School's Collection").
Colcannon is also made on Hallow'een night and it is sometimes called Colcannon Night ... Another custom is to put nuts in a pan for a pair, to see will they be married; if they burn out they say the pair will marry and live happy together If one cracks and jumps out of the fire then that person whether man or woman will not be contented to live with the other."
Lead was melted and poured through the wards of a key and allowed to drop into a basin of water. It formed various shapes in the basin. People pretended to read fortunes from the various shapes e.g. If the piece of lead looked like a gun, the person would be a soldier (or marry a soldier), if like a fish – a fisherman, and so on.
Hallow Eve - Every good farmer ought to be done digging potatoes for "Hallow Eve". The big sound potatoes were saved to make "boxty". Fadbans (big boast or black potatoes) and poreens (small rubbish were left aside for pigs.) Every family had boxty (made from raw grated potatoes boiled potatoes and flour) dumplings for supper on Hallow Eve. Some of the boxty was baked in the oven in the form of a sake to be fired on "All Saints Day". The water in which dumplings were boiled was sweetened with sugar and made into a kind of sauce to be eaten with them.
Any single person breaking delph on Hallow Weve will note be married for seven times seven moons. Every girl whose hair was over seven finger lengths long singed it off to that length on Hallow Eve. Other tricks that are played on Hallow Eve are were to put a porringer on your head and go down and kiss the floor without it falling off, another one is to put a penny on a turf and put your hand in between your legs and try to get it.
The fire, turf it was, would be 'raked' that is covered with ashes and there used to be a lookout in the morning for footprints in the ashes. If the footprints were turning towards the door it was supposed some member of the family would be leaving by next Halloween. If they were in the direction of the fire some new arrival to the home might be expected.
On Hallow Eve in some places, boys and girls go around dressed in all sorts of turnouts and sing and dance for the neighbours. They are given some money which was used to buy a treat of "white bread and treacle." The people of the towns always have a merry time at Hallow E'en as they let off squibs and wear false faces. The guards always have a very busy time at Hallow E'en keeping order.
The young men go about playing pranks on the neighbours. They usually raid the best cabbage plot in the vicinity and take away loads of cabbage stumps and tie one to each door in the village. On the following morning as the people go to Mass they can all know the late-risers on seeing the cabbage stumps tied to the door.
"On Hallow'een people stick Quickbane (the Rowan Tree aka Witchbane) to preserve their crops from witchery ... A little man called the Pooka was supposed to go around on that night "..." on haws, apples, and other fruits, and if anybody eats them after that night, they were supposed to be poisoned.
"They used to go around from door to door with their mouths full of beans listening to know would they hear anybody's name mentioned, and whatever name was mentioned they were supposed to marry that person."
They used to get up at twelve o'clock in the night and stand before a mirror with a candle lighted to see in the mirror the man they were going to marry. Another old custom was they used to wash their nightdresses in the night and put down a good fire to dry it, leaving it before the fire to dry, and it was said if they watched at twelve they would see the future husband coming and turning the nightdresses.
Another trick is putting beans down on the hearth – a black bean for the boy and brown bean for the girl – and if the beans stayed together they are supposed to be married and if one of them leaps from the other they won't be married.
They used to pick out some person to go out in the garden and pull a cabbage stump and if it was crooked she would marry a crooked man and if it was straight she would marry a straight man.
"All Hallows' Eve – the vigil of all Saints Day – is the occasion of many amusements in Ireland, some of which are handed down from Pagan days.
To tell the fortunes of the coming year melted lead must be poured through the ring of a key; the ring being an ancient symbol for the circle of the year, and the key being symbolical of the door of the future.
Another ceremony is the placing of three saucers on the table; in one is salt, in the second a ring, and the third a handful of earth. Each of the company is then blindfolded, and after being led around the table three times, he places his right hand on one of the saucers. If the saucer containing the earth is touched it brings a pious prayer to the lips of the blindfolded person, for it is a grim reminder that the time is not far off when he too will be but a handful of graveyard clay; if the saucer with the ring is touched it means that a happy marriage is in the offing; and the hand that rests upon the salt may expect to cry salt tears in the near future.
On this night the fairies have great power and wander around the earth and are only too willing to come in and warm themselves to the fire as they used to do in the days of old when the Druids rekindled the sacred fire for them, on this night. A "coal" of this fire was brought into every homestead to kindle a sacred fire for the fairies who used to come in and sing and dance with the company and tell them all about the future.
Hallowe'en is known around this district as Snap-Apple-Night to the youngsters, for on that night a wooden cross is hung to the kitchen rafters and to each alternate pint a lighted candle is attached. Then a big tub is placed on the kitchen floor and filled with water, into which coins (sixpence or threepenny "bit") are dropped. The task now before the youngsters is to plunge their heads into the tub and bring up one of the coins between their teeth.
Image: Irish Photo Archive. Children playing Snap Apple 31st October 1952
Many of the elder boys and girls are engaged in apple-paring which consists of paring the skin of the apple in one continuous strip, which must remain intact from start to finish of the paring process; if it breaks it is a sign of a disappointment. This ribbon of apple skin is then passed over the head three times and then dropped over the left shoulder on to the floor where it sometimes forms the initial of a name which is taken to be that of your future husband or wife, as the case may be.
When the tea is over the company sing and dance until the clock strikes midnight, when everyone prepares for home, and the old man of the house stands up and says, "God grant that we may be all living and doing well this time twelve months," and all say "Amen".
Then home they go, and not one of them is idiotic enough to think that he has indulged in superstitious practices, for they fully realize the true and noble significance of the ceremonies they have assisted in. They know that they were simply observing old Celtic customs, Christian and Pagan, and forging another link to bind them to those who are gone before."
The people have an apple cake for their tea. There is a ring in the cake. It is said whoever will get the ring will have the longest life. Some other people say whoever gets the ring will be first married in their house.
They cut the stalks from the cabbage head and some of the girls and boys went in front of the house where some bad-tempered person lived. They hit the door two or three raps with the "kale runt" as the cabbage stalk was called in those days at the same time shouting "Halloween night". The old man of the house came running out and opened the door. When some of the boys coming behind would throw a cabbage head in the doorway which probably would tumble him. Halloween is kept as a pagan feast.
The day after Halloween is called All Saints Day. The day after All Saints Day is called All Soul's Day.
In honour of the harvest thanksgiving, we get barmbrack on the day of Hallo Eve and watch to see who would get the ring. We call it Home Festival. My pals and I had a lot of fun on Hallow Eve night - we had rockets also.
People say that on Hallow Eve night the fairies poison the fruit.
November night is very often called Hallow'een. It is a very joyful night. There is a number of games played on that night such as Blind Man's Buff, Snapping apple's, Burning Nut's and Diving.
On Hallow'een it is said the fairies are out and that they destroy blackberries nuts and all wild fruit.
On Hallow'een a barmbrack (is made on that night) and in it is put a match (conflict) and a piece of cloth (poverty), a ring (marriage), a thimble (old maid) and a button (bachelor). Then the cake is cut to pieces is given to the members of the family.
"On this night people leave a jug of water on the table when they are going to bed for it is said that the Souls wander about that night. Long ago people were afraid to go out late on this night for they thought that the devil and other evil spirits were out.
There were many tricks played long ago which are not played now - such as letting out pigs and tying goats to doors of houses."
Four saucers are put on a table. Clay is put in one saucer, water in another, nothing in another and a ring in the other. A person blindfolded puts his hand into any of the saucers: if he tips the saucer with the clay in it it is said that he will die within a year, if he tips the water he will cross the seas. The saucer with the ring means that he will marry and the empty one meant he would not.
If a piece of bread falls from the table it is not to be picked up, it is to be left for the púca.
Boxty bread and a currant cake were made for a feast for Halloween night.
Nuts and apples are eaten at Hallowe'en. Games peculiar to Hallowe'en are played and there is always a barm-brack for tea which contains a ring. Whoever gets the ring in his slice will be married first it is said.
The following are games peculiar to Hallows Eve: an apple is suspended by a cord from the ceiling and each of the players tries to catch it in his mouth as it swings; an apple is put into a tub of water and each player in his turn tries to catch it in his mouth. Whoever catches the apple has permission to eat it.
"Some people get a turnip and cut eyes and a nose out of it. They cut a big mouth and they light the candle and put it in. They bring it out and if they see anybody go anyplace they set it for him when he is coming back to frighten him.
They tie a turnip to the latch of a door and when he opens the door it hits him in the face. Sometimes they blow red pepper in the keyhole and the people sneeze inside.
On Hallow-een the people clean the house and leave plenty of food and water for the visions of people to come back. They throw out the water in the morning."
"A black-hafted knife put under your pillow on Hallow'een night makes your future husband, or wife, as the case may be, come outside your bed."
"If you draw your shirt through the river and put it before the fire to dry at midnight your future husband or wife will come and turn the shirt."
Boys go out during the night and play tricks on their next-door neighbour. They take away his gate and hang it in another man's yard. They tie another man's door so that he cannot get out the next morning. They also pull up his cabbage and throw it on the road.
"The Pooka" is out that night too. Old people used to tell that if the apples were not pulled and stored away the Pooka dirtied them so that they could not be used.
Whatever way the wind flows November Day it will keep that way the rest of the year.
On Hallow'een a number of tricks are played ... gates are taken and thrown away ... the wheels are taken off carts and hung on the telegram poles or left at the crossroads ... tying peoples doors, so that when they try to get out they cannot.
An old belief in this district was that if an unmarried person looked into a mirror on that night he or she would see the reflection of his or her future spouse. The same applies to looking into a well or other clear water if the night be bright.
Another Hallow Een game played by girls is the melting of a lead and pouring the molten material into cold water, when it hardens in pieces of different shapes, as farming utensils, carpenter's tools etc. The girl can tell by the piece she draws out what will be her future husband's trade or profession.
Another great custom at Halloween is The Waking of the Fern Seed. It is done in this way: Two men with good nerves go out and gather the fern seeds, they then get 10 Pewter Plates and 4 white sheets and 4 candles. They place the 10 Pewter Plates on the ground one on top of the other and place the fern seeds on the top one. They then put up the sheets in a square around the plates and light the candles they then wish for wishes. If the wish is to be fulfilled the seeds pass right through the nine plates and remain on the tenth plate at this time the Devil comes and grants them their wishes.
On Halloween long ago it was a custom that the people would not throw out water after night because the Holy Souls were supposed to be about. Also, the kitchen was left clean (especially the hearth) and a clear passage was left from the door to the fire. All chairs etc were put back against the walls. It was customary to leave a large plate of colcannon on the table with spoons stuck in it for the "good people".
It used to be the custom for people to tie up their cats on Halloween in order to keep them safe from witches because there are plenty about on that night. Those who do not tie up their own cat might see it wandering about through the fields carrying a witch on its back.
On Halloween night - young girls would go blindfolded to a corn stack. Pull out a stalk of corn, count the pickles, this was believed to be the number of years till they would get married.
Some put a penny into a dish of water and see who can take it out, and whoever takes it out gets the penny. Others put a sixpence into a dish of flour and whoever takes it out with your mouth gets the sixpence. Anyone that likes dresses up in old clothes and puts on false faces and goes around rapping doors.
Some people, leave the fire lit all night on Halloween night for the Holy Souls.
"On November Night also spoken of as Hallow'een the young men dress up as huggadus and go around from house to house dancing and making fun. The people of the house generally have a store of apples and nuts which they distribute to them when they are departing."
November Eve is called Hallow-Een. On that night the children take delight in beating the doors and in running away when the people get angry and follow them. They get together in a certain place and then they go into a garden and get a cabbage stump each to beat the doors with. When the people hear the boys running towards their doors to beat them they open their doors and stand at them. (They know the boys would not beat their doors when they would see them at them). Before long the boys get tired and go home and start ducking – a sixpence is put in a basin of water and whoever got the sixpence in his mouth out of the basin with his hands tied behind his back could keep it.
On this night also nuts are put by the fire to see how and towards whom they will jump when heated. Cabbage is also taken from gardens, broken up and strewn along the road or left at the door of some poor person.
The amusements on this night finish up with tea and cake in which is a ring, a nut and a sloe (whoever got the ring would be married within the year, whoever got the nut would die within the year, whoever got the sloe would live forever).
A person goes to bed early and does not speak a word until the morning he has a dream during the night and the person he sees in his dream is the person he will marry. Some children go around listening to what is going on indoors.
The people say that it is not right to eat blackberries or sloes after Halloween. They also say that the ghosts be out on that night. If you look in the mirror at twelve o'clock you will see the devil.
"This night is called Snap Apple Night and for the following reason. A cord is suspended from the ceiling with a wooden cross attached. To two of the arms of this cross apples are fixed and to the other two short bits of candles are fixed. The candles are lighted and the cross is set spinning around. Each person in turn makes a snap at the apples but very often only succeeds in catching the lighted candle to the great amusement of all the others."
"On Hallow'een boys and girls have great fun. Their parents buy a barn-brack which contains a ring, a pea, a bean, a stick and a rag. The person who gets the ring is the first to be married. The person who gets the '' is said to cross water. The boy who gets the stick will be an old bachelor. The girl who gets the rag will be an old maid."
It is the custom in this part of the country for boys to dress up and go from house to house on Hallow Een. They put masks on their faces and put real long clothes on themselves or suits made of cotton cloth, and they walk like real old men and women so that they would not be recognised. When they go into a house they dance and try to play tricks but when a question is put to them they answer in a queer tone so that people will not recognise them.
In each house, they go to they are given a hearty welcome and are given money or apples or nuts when leaving. They are called "Baw-men". Some of them wear masks with long noses and white faces. This custom is in the country for the past 60 years and is just the same as when it first came into this country. (1870s)
On Hallow Eve night some people place a briar around the churn so as to prevent the fairies from stealing the butter.
Colcannon was made every All-Hallows eve for dinner or later when all members of the family would be in after the work of the day. A ring was generally put in it.
It is said that if a person's name commences with "H" the "Púca" takes all the money, and gives it to the person whose name commences with "R." If the persons whose name ends in "H" he does the most harm. Long ago people believed more in these things.
Three plates are placed in a row on the table, a ring is put on the first, some water in the second and in the third a handful of clay. The person wishing to gaze into the future is blindfolded (while the position of the plates is changed) and led to the table. He gropes about till he feels a plate. If he touches the clay he is doomed to die before next Hallows Eve tide, If he gets the plate of water, he must cross the sea during the same time, but if he is lucky to find the ring he is sure to be happily married and settled when Hallow Eve comes round again.
SOURCE: Festival Traditions | dúchas.ie
Although the counties of Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone were not included in Schools Collection (1937-1939) for the Irish Folklore Commission... you can ask our local volunteers about any Irish customs or traditions specific to any county or district by posting to our Message Board HERE.
A special thanks to dúchas.ie for providing the following additional information for Northern Ireland from their main collection:
ARMAGH - from "At Slieve Gullion's Foot" by Michael J. Murphy
"Hallow Eve was an eerie festival as well as on for robust enjoyment. The young men took carts – while owners chased them – and usually dumped these in a certain flax-hole. Men meeting such a crowd have often been persuaded to join the fun – only to find out later that the cart was their own!
Of course, fairies were abroad this night. But they compensated mortals by investing the night with occult powers which enabled mortals to foretell the future by observing certain rights. It was the girls who cherished this rite, and their anxiety for the future seemed to have ended at an attempt to foresee a spouse or the lack of one.
The burning of nuts is still practised of course and is well known. Not so well known, was the game of melting lead and pouring it through the finger loop of a widow's key into cold water. It was held that the cooled lead would shape itself into the initials of the future spouse.
A marriage ring was often mixed into the champ. Here boys and girls gathered around a pot on the floor and armed with big spoons, tried to be the first to get the ring in their mouths. The winner would be married ere next Hallows Eve. This game was most amusing. Little chivalry or decorum was observed in the eagerness to get the ring, and the champ went over hair and eyes, as well as into the mouth."
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