Where Halloween's Story Began

Evidence gathered from archaeology digs, legends, myths and Celtic history have all been examined to unearth the story of the authentic origins of Halloween in Ireland.

According to Irish folklore, Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic tradition of Samhain. The old Irish for ‘summer’s end’, Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and the start of the New Year.

The Púca Festival town of Athboy is an important hub of Halloween tradition. Old manuscripts tell us that Tlachtga or The Hill of Ward, was a site of great Samhain gathering.

It was at Tlachtga that the ancient Irish lit a fire from which all the fires in Ireland were rekindled. Recent archaeological excavations there suggest this ancient hill was used for feasting and celebration over 2,000 years ago, and to this day the Boyne Valley remains one of the many important historical sites of Halloween tradition in Ireland. Each of these sites has its own story, one being that every Samhain a host of otherworldly beings emerge from Oweynagat (cave of the cats) at Rathcroghan in County Roscommon.

The celebration of the Celtic new year involved lighting fires, feasting on the crops of the harvest, music, gathering together and storytelling, a very vibrant and long-lasting tradition in Ireland.

The meaning of Púca

At ancient New Year when light turns to dark, the veil between realities draws thin, rules can be broken, and the spirits move between worlds. Púca comes alive, a shape-shifting spirit, roaming the night and changing the fortunes of those that cross her path Púca immerses you in the true spirit of Halloween transforming the night into a playground.

The belief in the closeness of the Otherworld and the return of the Dead was associated with Halloween. Wearing costumes and masks offered protection. The fairies couldn’t abduct you and you got to frighten your neighbours. Tricks were played on the unsuspecting, which may be the origin of the ubiquitous trick or treating.

Turnips and other root vegetables were carved with grotesque faces and lit with candles to scare and to protect. When the Irish emigrated to America, they adapted the tradition to pumpkins, because turnips were a lot harder to come by.

Often carved pumpkins are referred to as jack-o’-lanterns, after the Irish legend of trickster Jack, who is caught between Heaven and Hell and must roam the earth with nothing but a lantern to light his way. His light was a distraction that led people astray and into the unknown.

Bobbing for apples is a traditional Irish game at Halloween. Apples and nuts are the festival foods, as the harvest was gathered during Autumn. Like other quarter days the eve of the dark winter season was a time to foretell what your future held and also your marriage prospects. Many games were played to determine who would be married within the year, especially the recipient of the ring in the Barmbrack cake.

Púca Festival remembers traditions and the spirits of Samhain by reopening the pathways of reflection and celebration carved by travellers at Halloween over 2,000 years ago.

Samhain Food Traditions

Ghost Turnip ©National Museum of Ireland

Festival Tribe

Which Spirit Are You?

Púca

The namesake, Púca, is a shapeshifter, a trickster, a mischievous spirit and at the heart of the festival. Púca is covered in long hair that sways as she does. She can be found to have multiple heads and limbs as well as horns and claws. She can be tall, she can be little. She’s a shape changer after all! You never know what shape the PÚCA might take – so when a collection of over-sized, dark haired creatures with golden eyes begin to march towards you assume she could be one of them

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The Morrigan

The Morrigan is the goddess of war – she alone can sway the tide of battle. She is the one that can pick a favourite, ride out and fight side by side upon her black steed to defeat her chosen one’s foe. It is also she who declares death. In her form of a crow or raven she will rest upon a wall, roof or garden stone to proclaim its residents’ demise. Those who cross the Morrigan on her wicked hunt are taken into the other world.

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Fear Dearg

The Fear Dearg busies himself with practical jokes. He and his fellow mischief makers are loutish, boorish, ill-mannered and churlish. Samhain is the night when he puts on a show! He loves fire – because it’s as unpredictable as him, and music that gets more manic as it goes on. When the torches are lit, and the music begins to play – you know the Fear Dearg is on his way!

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Boan

Boann has the head of a white cow -seemingly woven from the willow growing along her banks. Around her neck is a band of hazelnuts. Emanating from her is a gentle, glowing light.

Boann was once a goddess and she holds herself accordingly. Her posture is graceful and her actions effortless. She acts as if she is high royalty (as she once was). Her movements are that of a wide and gentle river – flowing from side to side. Every now and again she sets off into a rippling spiral – as if one of the nine hazelnuts of a magical well which created the Salmon of Knowledge has fallen into her waters.

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