Carved pumpkin and blog title text

This Halloween, when you're lighting up your pumpkins, spare a thought for your Irish ancestors. They helped create the popular holiday we know today.

Do Irish people celebrate Halloween?

Halloween is a big deal in Ireland. The festival bears many similarities to celebrations in USA and Canada.

👻 Groups of children call into neighbouring houses, trick or treating.

🎆 Fancy dress parties happen with firework displays.

🎃 People hollow out pumpkins, illuminate them and place them in windows.

💀 Houses and shops are decorated with lights and paper decorations such as pumpkins, skulls and skeletons.

🥔 People eat traditional Halloween foods such as bram brack (fruit cake) and colcannon (mashed potato with kale). See the food section below for information.

Halloween is a national holiday in Ireland. Banks, businesses and government offices all close down. This happens on the closest Monday in October to the 31st.

If you're lucky enough to find yourself in Ireland for Halloween, don't miss one of Ireland's biggest Halloween celebrations in Derry city.

Sliced fruit cake
Irish barn breac, or tea brack; a traditional Halloween food.

Have you tried these Irish Halloween Foods?

Make sure you try one of these traditional Irish Halloween foods:

Colcannon - mashed potato with onion and kale or cabbage;

Bairn breac or tea brack - fruit cake moistened by soaking raisins in tea and served slathered with butter;

Did you know? Even in modern times, it was traditional to leave a ring or a coin inside colcannon or bairn breac. The person who found the lucky item in their food would be blessed with money, a marriage or some other good fortune.

Where does Halloween come from?

During the Christianisation of Ireland in the early medieval period, the church associated Christian holy days with pagan festivals.

The biggest celebration of the year for pagans had been Samhain (pronounced "sow-in") in early November. 1st November became All Saints Day or All Hallows Day - a day to pray for all Christian saints.

The night before All Hallows Day was Hallow's Evening. In time, this phrase was shortened to... Hallowe'en!

Foyle Derry fireworks in Ireland at Halloween
Fireworks over Derry in Ireland at night

Why was Samhain so important?

Without any modern conveniences, days in ancient Ireland began in total darkness before progressing into the light. This is one theory why November, with its long, dark, winter nights symbolised the beginning of the year.

Celebrations began at sunset of the day before Samhain. It was believed that the gap between the real world and the ghost world became blurred. Fairies, púkas (ghosts), banshees and other spirits slipped into our world at this time to make mischief. Halloween has always been spooky!

Samhain is still the Irish word for the month of November.

Keeping the evil out

Halloween/Samhain was a time to commune with spirits. To keep evil spirits at bay bonfires would be lit. Animal bones were burnt in the fires; hence the origin of the name, 'bone-fire'.

People wore masks. They did this to confuse the spirits and hide from people who disliked them. The more timid would leave food outside their front door for fairies. Others left tributes for fairies at hawthorn trees. Hawthorn trees are still known as 'fairy trees' today in Ireland.

Of course it's not only evil souls that would visit on the 31st October. Some people believed that their dead ancestors would pop in for a visit. These people would leave a fire roaring and feasts of fresh vegetables and homemade delights for their ghostly visitors on the night!

Fairy tree in Killary harbour, Connemara
A 'fairy tree' or hawthorn with rags tied to it for luck, in Connemara

Agricultural significance of Samhain

It wasn't all ghosts though! Agricultural aspects of Halloween/Samhain were distinctly real too.

All crops had to be gathered in beforehand; cattle and other herds of animals had to bring their livestock in before the cold and dark of winter made itself felt.

No berries could be picked after this time, as it was said that the púka would spit on them. Even today, in the countryside, Irish people will not eat blackberries after the first frost of the year.

Weather forecasts for the coming winter would be made according to the direction and strength of the wind at midnight on Halloween, or by the shape of clouds over the moon.

Other pagan festivals from Ireland...

As well as Samhain, there were three other major festivals celebrated throughout the year in pre-Christian Ireland.

  • Imbolc (pronounced "im-bulk" ): 1st February
  • Beltaine (pronounced "be-yawl-tin-ah") : 1st May
  • Lughnasa (pronounced "loo-na-sa") : 1st August

These ancient pagan festivals live on in modern Ireland, through Christian celebrations and saints. 1st February is St. Bridget's Day in Ireland, celebrated by making Bridget Crosses. Beltaine became May Day. Lughnasa is now known as Reek Sunday in Ireland; pilgrims climb Croagh Patrick in Mayo.

Masked Vagabond tour guests getting in the Irish Halloween spirit
Masked Vagabond Tour guests get into the spirit of Halloween on tour

Why do people go Trick or Treating?

Other elements of the modern Halloween festival can be traced to more recent times.

In early 20th century Ireland, trick or treating was known as 'guising'. Rural people dressed up in straw masks and went visiting their neighbours. They would walk from house to house without speaking, to try to conceal their identity. This sounds a bit scary was just for fun.

Where does pumpkin carving come from?

The hollowing out of a pumpkin is now a widespread practice in Ireland at Halloween, as well as the USA and Canada.

But pumpkins aren't native to Ireland. So where does this Halloween tradition come from?

Well, it too originated in Ireland. Without pumpkins, people used turnips instead. They were known as turnip lanterns, or ghost turnips.

Whatever you do this Halloween, don't forget to leave treats out for any otherworldly visitors you might get during the night!

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