Emerald Isle


Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

Bonefire-cast shadows dance through the twilight and the mounds yawn wide

The ancient Irish festival of Samhain, or as we know it today, Hallowe'en, is rooted deep in the very bedrock of Ireland, among the customs of those who first arrived here when the great ice withdrew. On this advent of the darkest time of the year they imagined their worst fears coming true, the dead walking and evil spirits hovering outside their doors, witches and goblins ready to do mischief, and nightmares crossing over from the realm of dreams!

Samhain was one of the four great fire festivals of the old Irish and the Tuatha De Danann, along with Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasa, and the most important one for it was the last crossroads and a reminder that all life was fleeting.

Samhain was also called Féile Moingfhinne, or the Festival of Mongfhionn, and that “women and the rabble make petitions to her” at Samhain.

The darkling Gaelic lord of the dead whose name was Donn reminded them of his grim presence on Samhain, and of him it was written “To me, to my house, you shall come after your death.”

All boundaries were to be avoided on Samhain, especially the border between one man's land and his neighbours, as well as bridges and crossing places, for it was here that one would most likely meet the shade of one long gone, a sidhe, or a fairy cackling with malevolent glee!

Many feared to go outside at all on Halloween, as it was written, "according to the popular belief, it is not safe to be near a churchyard on Hallow Eve, and people should not leave their homes after dark, or the ghosts would pursue them... if on that night you hear footsteps following you, beware of looking round; it is the dead who are behind you, and if you meet their glance, assuredly you must die."

In fact the only place worse than a bridge at this time of year was a graveyard or burial mound, for fear their might be a new grave in the morning!

In the old days all fighting and hunting ended on this day, except for the bold Queen Medb who chose this day to begin her cattle raid on Cooley. The Fianna would return from the forests and settle back among the people, and Lugh came to Tara on this same night, before later fighting the second battle of Moy Tura on Samhain.

Acallam na Senórach, the Colloquy of the Elders, tells how three female werewolves emerged from the cave of Cruachan each Samhain to kill livestock and the unwary, but were defeated by the warrior Cailte of the Fianna.

Celebrations began when the sun set, for that was the beginning of the new day to the Gaels, peace was declared on pain of eternal exile, and they held enormous feasts and wild gatherings filled with dancing and displays of skill for seven full days and nights. These were Samhain itself and the three days before and after. Cattle were brought down from the summer pastures and slaughtered, some ritually, which persisted in parts of Ireland until the nineteenth century, and tremendous bonfires were lit across the land with arcane ceremonies.

The old druids would chant their spells and cast their witch-stones and sacrifices into each fire, making sure only to feed the flames only with certain kinds of wood and bone, which is why they were called “bone fires”. These fires were said to have protective and cleansing powers, keeping old night at bay and harrowing sickness from the people, and logs or sods of burning turf were brought from the fires to homes and hearths around the country.

Seers would gaze long into the flames, throwing in popping hazelnuts and rocking back and forth, humming to themselves or spinning in wild dervishes. They sought to peer through the cracks and gain hidden knowledge, for during this liminal or threshold festival the ancient burial mounds were open, acting as as portals to the otherworld!

The boundaries between the worlds grew thin, as they say, and all manner of creatures crossed over from the lands of the dead to our own. They were appeased with rich food and heady drink, and a place was set for them at the feast. Candles were lit in the windows to guide them home and tales were told of their deeds as their memory was celebrated.

Although it is strange to say, these proceedings were but an echo of a much earlier and darker time, at least according to the Book of Invasions! Each Samhain the people of Nemed had to give two thirds of their children, their corn and their milk to the monstrous Fomorians who personified chaos, darkness, death, blight and drought.

The Annals of the Four Masters tell that Samhain of old was associated with a dread god or idol called Crom Cruach. They say a first-born child would be sacrificed at its stone idol in Magh Slécht, and that King Tigernmas, along with three quarters of his people, died while worshipping the worm god one Samhain.

Tigernmas was far from the only Irish king who came to a messy end on Samhain however! Kings Diarmait mac Cerbaill and Muirchertach mac Ercae each died the threefold death on this festival, being burned, wounded and drowned, while the mighty King Conaire Mór perished for breaking his geas, or sacred taboo.

The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn tells how, every Samhain, the men of Ireland went to woo a beautiful maiden who lived in the fairy mound on Brí Eile or Croghan Hill. Each year one of the men would be killed by the Sidhe and pulled down into the mounds, and some have suggested that these tales recall human sacrifice – even claiming that the ancient Irish bog bodies may have died on Samhain in this way!

Mumming, guising, or what we today call trick-or-treating is another very ancient part of the Samhain festivities. It may have begun when the Fianna or Kerns donned the masks of wild animals lighting lanterns within and above them, and ran through settlements demanding offerings, possessed as they believed by the people of the mounds, the dead. Hazelnuts, a sign of divine wisdom, and apples, symbolising immortality, were especially appreciated!

In southern parts of Ireland during the nineteenth century, the guisers made a hobby horse called the Láir Bhán or white mare. A man covered in a white sheet and carrying a decorated horse skull would lead a group of youths, blowing on cow horns, from farm to farm. At each house they recited verses, some of which “savoured strongly of paganism”, and the farmer was expected to give them food. If he fed them well he could expect good fortune from the “Muck Olla,” but if he failed them, bad fortune would dog his heels for the coming year!

On Hallowe'en it was the custom for any children in the house to be sprinkled with holy water, and sometimes a dead ember from the hearth would be placed in their little beds or cribs. Animals and livestock were also sprinkled with holy water, as well as doors, windows and passages, and if you were throwing water out into the yard, holy or not, on this night you'd first shout seachain or chughaibh an t-usce!

These meant beware, or water towards you, since drenching a passing fairy was sure to incur their wrath!

None should eat wild blackberries after this night, and children should touch no growing fruit at all, for it was believed that the Púca had spat poison upon them.

There were a wide variety of prescriptions to protect against fairies on Samhain – you should carry a black handled (or perhaps blackthorn-handled) knife wherever you go, and if you couldn't manage that, having a steel needle stuck in your collar was considered a good warding method. If you or someone else happened to be caught among them, casting a book or shaking the dust from the bottom of your shoes was said to drive them off, and failing that, to turn your coat inside-out so they couldn't recognise you was sure to confuse and dismay them.

A special Oíche Shamhna cross called a Parshell cross offered particularly good protection, and leaving a plate of food outside for the Good Folk would hopefully ensure their goodwill.

It used to be the way that a necklace of Dog-rosehips was made for the night that was in it, and the seeds, called síol or pór, or “itchy backs” were put aside by mischeivous children for pranks – if they were poured down the back of someone's jumper, it would cause a ferocious itching! Ground seeds were once used to treat loss of feeling in parts of the body.

It was the time for tricksters and young people would take the wheels off carts and put them on the roofs of houses, or steal cabbages from the fields, or paint anyone they found laying around sleeping.

Other traditions included placing a lantern on the grave of a loved one, putting beans and nuts into the fire to watch them jump, if they jumped apart a couple might split up, making offerings at the church for the holy souls, melting lead through a key into water to try to foretell your future jobs or even destiny, and putting a snail between two plates to try to read the future in its trail.

In olden times, although not that long ago, a stick was hung from a rope with an apple at one end and a lit candle at the other, and you'd put your hands behind your back to take a bite from the apple, not the candle! Apples, nuts and coins were dropped in a tub of water and you'd have to pick something out using only your mouth, and barm brack or Bairín Breac (speckled) cakes were cooked, each containing treasures to help foretell the future.

If you got a ring in your slice, you would marry soon, and other items were also baked in like a thimble signifying you would be a spinster, a pea meaning poverty, a bean for money, a holy medal meaning you'd become a priest or nun, a button meaning you'd stay a bachelor, a rag also for poverty, a little boat for a sea journey, and a stick meaning you'd fight with your spouse!

If you didn't have a cake, these items could be placed under cups or plates on a table and people would wear blindlfolds while they picked one.

Eating a salted herring in three bites meant you'd see your husband in a dream that night, as long as you didn't drink anything before you slept, since your future husband would come to your aid with a glass of water. Colcannon, made from cabbage, potato and wild nettle, and boxty were other favoured foods for Hallowe'en, some of which was sent to households that might not have much money to feed themselves. Turnips were carved into wild faces and a candle put inside them, to be carried by a rope when guising or hung inside windows. Necklaces made from dried rowan berries and horse chestnuts were worn while out and about.

In some places the "supéar ar balbh" took place, the dumb supper, which was eaten at either midnight or dusk. No words were spoken nor songs were sung during this strange candle-lit meal, and everything was laid out backwards, including the order of dishes being served. Guests might wear masks as they ate, while a chair sat empty for any passing family ghosts that might wish to join.

Above all else though, in Ireland that was, Samhain was the time for fairies, and while you should never go into a ring fort or near a lone hawthorn on this night, you could stand nearby and hear the sounds of revelry from within! Some particularly foolish people held that you could even strike a deal with the more wicked fairies at this time of year by crawling through a briar rooted at both ends while making your request of them!

This was the time when the Sidhe tribes would move around from place to place, and whether you lived in a town or in the countryside you'd do well to keep both eyes open. And even that sometimes might not be enough, for you might find yourself completely lost even on a short walk! According to a book written in the late 19th century, "the passerby can hear the sound of music coming from some steep rock, or if a man in the dusk of the evening is looking for some stray animal he experiences their tricks by going astray and wandering about himself, and then he hears them laughing aloud at him in his difficulty."

And a tale from County Leitrim, on Hallow's Eve, as a young fellow was going home, he chanced to pass a fort, and heard the most beautiful music he had ever listened to in his life. As he stopped to listen, a grand castle seemed to appear before him, and he was invited to enter. Inside he found full of little men running about, and one of them came to him and told him on no account to take any refreshment there or it would be the worse for him, he took nothing.

By-and-bye he saw them all trooping out. He followed, and noticed that they all dipped their fingers in a large cask outside the entrance door and rubbed their fingers across their faces. He accordingly dipped his finger in the liquid and rubbed it over one of his eyes. In an instant there was a fine horse ready for him, and away with him and the others over the country, and over the whole world.

Towards morning he found himself lying on the butt of an old haystack, about half-a-mile from his own door, and getting up, he made his way home. The next day he had occasion to go into the market town, and whom should he see, but all his friends of the night, mingling with the people of the place, and going up and down through the market.

What must he do but up and speak to some of them, and asked them how they did. Said one to him, “How can you see us?” So he told them that he had dipped his finger in the barrel before the castle door and rubbed it over his right eye. That instant as he spoke the little man struck his eye with a stick he had, and took the sight from it, and it was no more he saw either the good people or anything else with that eye.

Many places in Ireland are associated with Samhain, but few more so than Rathcrogan in County Roscommon, marked on the map below!

Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland

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