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The Irish Origins of Halloween

7 min read

By Dawn Rainbolt, Marketing Executive
More by Dawn

Did you know that Halloween has its origins in a pagan festival from Ireland?

It’s that time of year: the air is cool and crisp, the trees are bursting in colour, the leaves are crunching underfoot, the air is filed with chimney smoke, and pumpkin flavour is back on the menu. And Halloween is just around the corner!

But where are origins of Halloween from? Today wildly popular in America with costumed children as well as made famous by Mexico’s Day of the Dead, the festival of Halloween actually originated in Ireland as a pagan festival called Samhain (pronounced saw-when), with traditions stretching back thousands of years. 

The Festival of Samhain & the Origins of Halloween

the origins of Halloween

Ever-popular world-wide, where does Halloween actually originate? Ireland! Even the tradition of pumpkin carving comes from Ireland…

Though the festival has changed a lot, the origins of Halloween are quite old – though how old, it is difficult to say. Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, comes from an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain, which predates Christianity by a long shot, so the origins of Halloween or Samahin are at least a few thousands years old. 

Traditionally celebrated from 31 October to 1 November, the festival of Samhain is meant to celebrate the end of the annual harvest season and the coming of winter. Samhain marks the time of year when livestock were brought in from their summer grazing grounds. Celebrated with great feasts, the ancient Celtic people also traditionally lit enormous bonfires to keep away the spirits of the dead thought to ‘awaken’ during Samhain.

According to Celtic culture, the transitions between seasons are associated with spirits and fairies – when the boundaries between the worlds was at its weakest. The most significant time of the year for spirits was Samhain, when the boundary between our world and the world of the dead dissolved. This one night of the year, it is said that spirits and fairies could easily cross into our world.

To keep the spirits at bay, the people left out offerings, mostly food and drink (not unlike the ‘offerings’ given out during Halloween festivities), as well as a seat at the feast table, to appease these stowaway ancestors and fairies.

Inside the dark and eerie Owneygat Cave – sometimes called the Gateway to Hell (or the ‘other world’) when the doorway to the fairy world is open. Dare to come here at Halloween?!

The idea wasn’t to dress up as something (i.e. a pirate or vampire or Viking etc) but rather the practice of disguising oneself is a sort of countermeasure to hide from the spirits and fairies. Today largely practiced by children, disguises used to be worn by all. Common disguises were simple – covering oneself in soot, a boy wearing his sister’s clothes (or vice versa), turning clothing inside out, wearing a handmade mask made of sack or sheet, etc. 

Though pumpkins are from North America, the practice of carving vegetables comes from Ireland. In the past during Samhain, long before pumpkins made their way to Europe, the Irish would have carved turnips (far more creepy than pumpkins!) in order to ward off the spirits. 

It is said that the idea of Halloween was carried to the USA by Irish immigrants (much like St Patrick’s Day was as well), and over time, the holiday gradually changed to fit with the American idea of Halloween – which is where the elaborate costumes, scary movies and pumpkins came in.

The Hag of Beara & Samhain

Hiking Ireland Samahain origins of Halloween

One of Ireland’s many fairy forts where, like on Samhain, the boundaries between our world and the world of dead are blurred.

There are many Irish legends that relate to or take place during Samhain. One legend is that of the Hag of Beara. The hag (or Caillagh in Irish) was supposedly born on Samhain, and ruled the winter months until Bealtine, the spring festival, in which her counterpart Bridhge (or Bridget) would take over. Though the Hag of Beara myth permeated the whole west coast of Ireland, her story is particularly associated with the southwest and the Beara Peninsula, where there is even a rock said to be her turned to stone. Explore the best of the southwest and the Beara Peninsula on our Kerry Peninsulas deluxe bike trip.

A great influence on Irish landscapes, many places still bear her name, including Hag’s Head at the Cliffs of Moher, which you can visit on foot on our exciting hiking trip, Hiking Connemara and Mayo, or on two wheels on our Bike Trip – Connemara & the Aran Islands, perfect for those looking for a first-time bike trip!  

Many other Irish legends relate to Samhain, including that of the mythical Cattle Raid of Cooley, an epic telling of a war fought between two Irish provinces by pitting their biggest bulls against one another, as well as the famous legend of the giant Finn McCool, the giant credited with creating the Giant’s Causeway. Visit the Giant’s Causeway and award-winning Causeway Coast with Wilderness Ireland’s Hiking the Causeway Coastal Route & Donegal.

Samhain in Ireland Today

Today, practicing the ancient festival of Samhain has drastically diminished in Ireland, but the tradition carries on all over the world under the guise of Halloween. In Ireland, like many other places in the world, children and adults continue to dress up in costumes, pumpkins continue to be carved, candy continues to be given away. For those who do practice the pagan side of the festival, practicants may leave some kind of offering (food and drink) for the spirts, perhaps light bonfires to celebrate the end of the harvest, and ringing bells while asking for apples. 

So this October 31st, when your getting your treats ready, putting the finishing touches on your costume and decorating your house with pumpkins, skeletons and more, keep an eye out for any wandering spirits or fairies taking advantage of the ‘doorway between the worlds’ that opens on Halloween!

Hiking Ireland Samahain Halloween

Devilish horns at Horn Head Peninsula, Co Donegal

Meet the Author: Dawn Rainbolt

“American by birth but European in spirit, Dawn has called the US, Costa Rica, Spain, England, Poland, France and now Ireland home over the years. While she has travelled to more than 30 countries, she has fallen in love with the rich Irish culture and sweeping landscapes of Ireland. Armed with a Masters Degree in Tourism Marketing and a love of writing and photography, she is Wilderness Ireland's Marketing Executive since 2017.”

View profileMore by Dawn

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