Did you know that Halloween has its roots in the ancient Irish festival of Samhain? This archaic Gaelic event celebrated the autumn harvest and marked the onset of winter. Ireland’s ancient peoples also believed that it was at this time of the year that the souls of the dead were closest to the living world and from this belief the Halloween holiday we have today was born.
Samhain is celebrated from sunset on October 31st to sunset on November 1st throughout Ireland, Scotland, and other strongly Celtic regions of the British Isles. As with Halloween festivities today, the event was marked with the lighting of bonfires which were to have protective powers and could drive away malevolent spirits and fairies from the underworld.
Food was always a key part of Samhain, with feasts being held and places were set for dead relatives while it was common to go from door to door dressed in disguise or costume, often reciting verses in exchange for food. It’s not too hard to see how Samhain became Halloween.
Such was the popularity of Samhain that the dates for All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day were moved by the Roman Catholic Church to November 1st and 2nd to try to combat it. In time, the three days merged to form our modern holiday.
Ireland was a much wilder country in the days of Samhain, even up to the 19th century when it was still celebrated in parts of the country, but references to it go back to the very earliest Irish literature and it far pre-dates the arrival of Christianity to the Emerald Isle.
In modern Ireland Halloween is as big as ever. Dublin hosts an annual Bram Stoker festival to celebrate the city’s famous writer of Dracula and there’s no better time of year to go on haunted bus tour of the capital’s spookiest locations. You’ll explore graveyards and learn of the history of tomb raiding, often for the purpose of medical experimentation! Then the tour will take you to the gloomy crypts of Christchurch Cathedral and you’ll discover how Dublin born Stoker created one of the most fascinating and enduringcharacters of horror over a century ago.
For more on Dracula perhaps you might dare to venture into the Bram Stoker / Dracula Museum in Clontarf. Trinity College’s Science Gallery is also marking Halloween with an exhibition on blood, while Dublin Zoo has organised a Spooktacular Boo for young horror fans.
Beyond Dublin you might be interested with a visit to Gothic Wicklow Gaol where there are spooky spider hunts and face painting for the little ones, with the chance for older visitors to brave this ancient prison’s ghosts with a night visit.
The Rathwood Ghost Train (near Tullow in County Carlow), awards prizes to the best fancy dress and as the train journeys through this haunted landscape you’ll cross the invisible bridge and see the Enchanted Tree’s fairy playground.
Bunratty Castle and Belvedere House (both haunted, of course), are also offering a full range of events to mark Halloween while farms across the country have organised pumpkin festivals.
In Northern Ireland, Derry City is the place to be for Halloween with the Banks of the Foyle Halloween Festival offering spooky fun for all the family. Ghost Bus tours are operated regularly and there are shows, an electrifying fireworks display, a night-time market, and world famous Halloween themed parade.
Trick or treating is a popular activity for kids on Halloween across Ireland but there are plenty of opportunities for adults to dress up too. Many nightclubs and other venues organise fancy dress parties, often with themed drinks and spot prizes for best dressed. Be creative and you never know what might happen! Many shops, from specialist retailers to department stores sell costumes and anything else you might need to make your Halloween as spooky as possible. On Halloween night itself bonfires and fireworks are popular across the country, but particularly in Dublin and Derry.
The Halloween scene extends to homes, where many people decorate their gardens with tombstones and skeletons. Don’t be too surprised when you’re out and about, perhaps enjoying a pint of Guinness in a pub, to look up and see a cobweb hanging over your head, a frightening spider waiting to pounce.
Ireland is the home of Halloween and though the traditions associated with the festival have moved on from the days when Samhain was celebrated, we’re every bit as passionate about this spookiest time of the year.