The Irish are famous for concocting a bewitching cauldron of mystery and merriment at Halloween time, and little wonder, Ireland is where it all began. Trace Halloween to its origins and you will arrive right back in the mists of Ireland’s Ancient East and the Celtic festival of Samhain, a great celebration of fire and feasting that marked the end of the season of light and the beginning of the dark days of winter.
At this moment of transition, the Celts believed there was an interaction between the worlds of the living and the dead and that spirits could move between them. Fearing that all manner of beings might pull them into the otherworld before their time, the Celts would disguise themselves in costumes to confuse and scare off the roaming ghosts, fairies, hobgoblins and demons.
The modern practice of dressing up at Halloween is firmly rooted in these old pre-Christian Celtic customs, as is the tradition of lighting bonfires, which began on hilltops in Ireland with clans and communities gathering to light huge ceremonial Samhain fires.
One of the biggest Celtic festivals of fire was at the peak of Tlachtga, or the Hill of Ward in present day County Meath. Recent archaeological excavations suggest the hill was used for feasting and celebration over 2,000 years ago and old manuscripts reveal that the Celts lit a fire here from which all the fires in Ireland were rekindled.
To this day the area around the Hill of Ward, and the nearby Hill of Tara where the High Kings of Ireland ruled, remains one of the centres of Irish Halloween traditions. The Púca Festival, a twenty-first-century Samhain celebration, is held in County Meath and neighbouring County Louth every year.
Celebrating Ireland as the birthplace of Halloween, Púca events normally include an impressive re-enactment of the symbolic lighting of the Samhain fire, live music and performance, amazing light installations and more. This year, however, the celebrations will be virtual, with a broadcast of the lighting of the Samhain fires due to take place on 31 October.
Lit up pumpkins with ghoulish faces is another much-loved aspect of Halloween. The practice of carving them began in Ireland, where turnips and large potatoes served as the original Jack-o-lanterns.
In fact, the name of the Halloween decoration comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack who played a trick on the Devil. As a punishment for his trickery, the Devil doomed Jack to wander eternity with only a burning ember from the everlasting fires of Hell inside a turnip to light his way.
Irish immigrants eventually brought the tradition to America, home of the pumpkin, and the winter squash has now become integral to the Halloween festivities.
Trick or treating is another Halloween tradition originating in Ireland, in this case with children and the poor going from door to door to ask for food, kindling or money. They sang songs or offered prayers for the soul of the dead in return for food, usually a soul cake which was a flattened bread that contained fruit. This tradition was known as ‘souling’.
The custom of dressing in costumes and making house visits to request small presents of sweets, fruit and money is alive and well in Ireland today, and in many other countries around the world.
As the land of ancient Celtic traditions, wailing banshees, haunted happenings, the creator of Dracula and tricks, treats and festivals galore, the island of Ireland is a bewitching destination at Halloween time. The Irish weather usually obliges with a cloak of dark and suitably eerie October evenings as the home of Halloween gets into the ‘spirit’ of the scariest time of year.
This year, digital media will play a major role in the island’s mix of memorable fright nights, with three of the biggest Halloween festivals planning to engage, entertain and bring supernatural surprises online.
What started life as a simple fancy-dress party in a pub in the famous Walled City of Derry~Londonderry has become the most exciting Halloween celebration in Europe, with the readers of USA Today voting it as the number one Halloween destination in the world. Derry Halloween is now an unmissable, bucket list event, with people from around the world – not to mention the otherworld – flocking there to enjoy a spectacular festival fusing ancient myth and cutting-edge culture.
Famed for turning Derry~Londonderry into a ‘City of Bones’ and shining a spooky spotlight on the city walls and all it has to offer in terms of culture, art and imagination, the 2020 event will run from 28 October to 1 November and will have a strong community and digital focus under the theme of ‘The Awakening’.
This year, the city will be invaded by large-scale inflatable monsters, visible both during the day and night, banshee bike rides, several fireworks displays that will fire simultaneously and a First Light service with music and choral experiences. There will be plenty of online content too with Little Horrors kids’ storytelling and performances, ‘how to’ tutorials on costume, mask and broomstick making, pumpkin carving, face painting, SFX makeup, recipes and cocktails.
Online storytelling, theatre and adult ghost stories will follow the festival theme, and there will also be Samhain Sessions – live music performances – and an online Kids Zone featuring arts, crafts and themed activities.
Bram Stoker Festival
The famous Bram Stoker Festival will once again bring fun and adventure to the Irish capital over the Halloween weekend of 30 October – 2 November as it delves into the legacy of the Dublin-born creator of Dracula. In a year when the stakes have been raised in unexpected ways, the programme for the 2020 celebration of all things Stoker will focus on interactive and fun experiences for all age groups, marking Dublin’s unique link to the author, the supernatural and Irish Halloween traditions.
There will be tricks and treats for everyone, so vampires of all ages will find something to sink their fangs into from the comfort of their own castles or in Dublin itself. The full programme will be unleashed soon, so gothic fans of all ages are advised to keep their eyes peeled on the festival website and the Bram Stoker Festival social channels.
At the inaugural Púca Festival last year thousands of people gathered at locations across counties Meath and Louth to celebrate Ireland as the original birthplace of Halloween. With a programme of events including a recreation of the symbolic lighting of the Samhain fires on the Hill of Ward, the festival lit up the darkness with fire, folklore, music, myth, light installations, and great food and drink.
This year, celebrations will be virtual with a broadcast of the lighting of the Samhain fires on the October 31 and a celebration of the story of Halloween’s origins in Irish and Celtic traditions told through the Púca social media channels.