Happy Halloween, or Oíche Shamhna shona duit. This ancient Celtic pagan festival is a big deal in Ireland, where the Monday before is a bank holiday, houses are decorated and children dress up to trick or treat.
Some say Ireland is the home of Halloween, although it’s celebrated as far south as Brittany and there are similar folk festivals in Scandinavia and in Slavic folklore. Wherever it began, Ireland is certainly the place from which Samhain travelled west to America in the great migrations of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Samhain is the end of the harvest season and the first day of winter, appropriated into Christianity as All Saints Day and fixed on November 1st. Halloween, or Oíche Shamhna, begins when the sun goes down on the night before, and the veil between the mortal world and the faerie realm of the Ao-Sí grows thin.
A penny for the puca
You can still find traditional Samhain festivals and parades around Ireland, in Dublin, Galway, Derry and as many other places. Until recently it was still a tradition for kids to dress up as “pucas” or mischievous faeries and go from door-to-door “souling”.
They’d sing songs and offer prayers for the souls of the dead, in exchange for food in the form of soul cake, a flattened fruit cake that’s known as barm brack for the rest of the year. Or they might beg “a penny for the puca”, touring from door-to-door with an effigy that would be placed on a bonfire to scare away the faeries. Homes were decorated with turnips or swedes, carved into jack o’lanterns for added spiritual security.
What fascinates me is that the late 20th century saw the Halloween meme return to Ireland (and many other countries) as trick-or-treat and mildly competitive home decorations. This year in Portlaoise, it’s all about the giant spiderwebs stretching from a first floor window across the front garden, although I did spot an incredible roadside Ghostbusters tableau in Rosenallis if you’re out that way (it was a dog of a night so I didn’t stop).
Children go from door-to-door in fantastic costumes, filling bags and buckets with sweets under the watchful eyes of parents or older siblings. Thank the old gods, no-one is singing!
As a Brit, I thought trick-or-treat was nothing but a coarse slab of contemporary American capitalism. Then I came here and witnessed the joy with which Irish people embrace a piece of folk culture that four centuries of British rule was unable to extinguish. And a good thing too.