Pulling cabbage and ducking for soap: Halloween celebrations in County Wicklow

Masks or 'vizors' were made by local children by stitching wool, hair and straw on fabric or cardboard. This one is made of unbleached calico and coconut fibres and comes from Rathcoyle, Kiltegan. Image Courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland
Halloween Divination Game (1935)
https://www.ucd.ie/irishfolklore/en/photographiccollection/

The following excerpts were recorded by the school children of County Wicklow between 1937 and 1938. They are taken from the Dúchas Schools’ Collection and highlight the  diversity of superstitions, traditions and lore associated with Halloween in County Wicklow. Of particular note are the different beliefs and traditions linked to the barm brack, as well as, the importance music singing and dancing played in the celebrations.

Baltinglass:

Sheila Doyle aged 13 from Shruhan, Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow.

The Irish people of the country-side are noted for keeping up old customs. One of the old customs is the celebrating of Hallowe’en the last day of October to which all people both young and old look forward for weeks beforehand.

In almost every house, both rich and poor, a barm-brack is provided for supper. At this meal much excitement is aroused during the cutting of the Brack which usually contains a ring a button and a piece of wood. It is said that who ever gets the ring will be married, he or she who gets the button will be an old batchelor; or whoever gets the wood will be a religious. This is one of the commonest customs in this district on Hallowe’en.

After that various games are played; Diving for apples, snap-apple and burning nuts. When those games are over. The people sit around the fire and tell stories about Ghosts which terrify the children and they are afraid to go upstairs to bed.

Last Hallow’en my mother told me a story of a man who was a great story-teller and used to come to a farmer’s house every Hallow’en to tell stories he would come at about 9 o’clock p.m. and leave at 12 o.clock p.m. One Hallow’en he came to tell the farmer some stories and the farmer was gone he waited for a while till the farmer returned, when the farmer returned they both went in and started telling stories as usually, (when) the man was telling the farmer a great story when they heard a great big knock at the door they got frightened and were afraid to stir they hid themselves and the knocking became more harder so the farmer got up and opened the door and who was it but his own brother’.

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This excerpt was writen by 15 year old Frances Jones from Deerpark, Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow on 11th November 1937 . Frances attended Presentation Convent, Baltinglas.

‘Long ago Hallowe’en was one of the greatest festivals of the year. The Druids used to light the bon fire and have a great feast. Now-a-days the people keep most of the old customs on Hallowe’en. The people of my district have a number of customs for Hallowe’en. The most unusual is playing of games. The children play bling man’s buff and other games. The older people put these saucers on the table one with clay another with a ring, and another with a cross. If a person touches the clay it means death, if he touches the ring it means marriage, and if he touches the cross it means piety.

The boys of the district dress up and go out the roads to frighten the people. The women of the houses generally leave a brack cut up in slices along with nuts on the table for the “juggies” to ear. Sometimes appears on the table. The apples and nuts signify the last fruits of Autumn.

For supper the people eat bracks. The eating of bracks is great sport. It is said that the first who touches the ring is the first to marry. Often supper the people play games.

When the households are returning the woman of the house lays the table as if it were for supper, and it is said that a fairy sometimes comes and eats what is on the table. It is said that if a person stands at the church door at midnight he will hear a spirit read out the names of the people of the parish who are to die during the following year. If no voice is heard nobody will die.

Last Hallowe’en we had nearly all the customs in my house. For supper had bracks. After supper we had nuts and apples. Then we played games. When we were going to bed we left the table‘.

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ARCHIVAL REFERENCE: The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0916, Page 239

Roundwood:

This  excerpt was written by a pupil from Mullinaveige, Co. Wicklow in 1938 (?) who attended Annacarter School in Roundwood (now a B&B):

Hallow Eve is celebrated all over the country. Everyone buys a “Barm Brack” to have for tea that evening. In every brack there is a ring and while it is being eaten everyone is trying to find the ring. There is a lot of nuts eaten on Hallow Eve also. On that evening all the boys of the locality dress in torn clothes and put vizards on their faces and go to meet one another at the appointed place and they go from house to house singing and dancing. For weeks before Hallow Eve the boys are preparing their vizards and they all try to be dressed the ugliest’.

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Archival Reference: The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0917, Page 269

Aughrim:

The following  excerpt was recorded by Mollie Mason from Aughrim in Co. Wicklow in 1938/39. Mollie attended Aughrim N.S. where she was thaught by Bean an Phléimeannaigh.

Usually on Hallow Eve – the 31st October the boys and girls of the village dress themselves up in old clothes with masks called visors on their faces. A week before Hallow Eve they make the clothes and masks and (something) sometimes they buy masks called visors in the shops. When Hallow Eve night arrives they disguise themselves and go from house to house and get apples, nuts and sometimes money. Some of the boys bring mouth-organs and others melodeons and have a dance in some farmhouse.
On “All Saints Night” some of the wizards also go out‘.

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Archival Reference: The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0921, Page 163

Arklow:

The following was recorded by Mary Clancy of 58 Lr. Main St, Arklow. Mary was a student at Arklow Convent (St Mary’s College?).

Hallow Eve is a time when all the children enjoy themselves. The night before Hallow Eve the children go around knock all the doors and then the people know that the children will be there the following night and that they should get in their nuts.

On Hallow Eve they go to the same houses dressed up and get their nuts and then they sing songs for them especially Irish songs. After all the visiting they come home and they have a great bog “bobbing”. They have a big tub of water full of nuts and apples and coconuts. Then they shut their eyes and dive into the tub and get whatever comes to them. There is also a threepenny bit in one of the apples so whoever gets the lucky one keeps it‘.

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Archival Reference: The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0923, Page 238

Rathdrum:

The following is a list of customs or traditions associated with Halloween. This excerpt was written at a school in Ballinacarrig, Rathdrum under the supervision of teacher Bean Uí Dhubhghoill.

1. On Hallow Eve night the young people of the County disguise themselves by putting vizards on their faces & putting old clothes on them, & then they go from house to house singing & dancing & playing melodeons People give them money, which they used to give a big dance.

2. Placeing 3 bowls on the table one with clay one with water and one with a ring. Then blindfold the person & lead him or her to table & tell him to put his hand in one of the saucers. If he puts his hand in one with water he will be drowned, or if he puts his hand in one with ring he will soon be married, & if he puts it in one with clay, he will soon die.

3. Stand before a mirror on Hallow Eve night at 12 OClock & hold another mirror over your shoulder & you will see your future husband.

4. Peal an apple without breaking the peel & throw peel over your shoulder & it will form initial of your future partine [?] on floor.

5. Snap apple. An apple hanging from ceiling. If a person could catch it with his teeth.

6. Dipping for apples in tub of water.

7. Going to a Graveyard at 12 oclock in the night on Hallow eve. Your future partner will appear to you’.

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Archival Reference: The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0918, Page 169

Wicklow:

Collected by Esther Doyle of Ballyguile, Wicklow Town a student at the Dominican Convent in Wicklow. It was collected from 50 year old David Doyle of the same address (her father?).

Hallow Eve had many old customs, and we still keep some of them, even to this day.
The most popular of these we still keep are, the hanging of an apple out of the ceiling and seeing who could catch it in their mouth, and also there is a tub filled with water and placed in the middle of the floor, and in the tub there is a sixpence and an apple, and everybody tries to catch it. On Hallow Eve the fairies leave their enchanted raths, and visit many old homes they visited in the ancient days. There is great feasting on that night, and who ever has not all the necessities gathered, that the pukas come and destroy all that is not collected in preparation, which consists of nuts, apples, and grapes, with plenty of barm brack for tea‘.

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Archival Reference: The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0926, Page 096

Collected by Eileen O’Grady from Wicklow Town a student at the Dominican Convent in Wicklow. It was collected from 60 year old William O’Grady also from Wicklow Town.

Halloe’ en is a time of great joy, the word Hallow Eve means Holy Eve, it is the day before All Saints Day. There are many old customs kept to this day. The chief one is the eating of apples and nuts and barn bracks, in each brack there is something inside which makes it more exciting such a ring a timble or a piece of cloth, those who find the ring are supposed to be the first in the family to get married and those who get the timble are going to be old maids, the one who is lucky enough to get the piece of cloth is going to be a Nun. Another custom is dressing up and going to other houses, it is great fun trying to get the apples out of the baisin blindfolded. Long ago people used to put nuts on the hearth and the persons nut which flies away first that person will be first to leave the house. The vizors are very frightening and a real disguise’.

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Archival Reference: The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0926, Page 095

Tinahely:

Collected by Ciss Healy of Newtown, Tinahely who attended Ballyrahan school, Tinahely.

‘There are a great many customs connected with Hallow Eve night.
(1) The young boys dress up on in old clothes and go from house to house playing games and making music and dancing. (2) The games played on Hallow Eve night are dipping for apples in a tub of water. Each one tries to catch an apple in his mouth. (3) Another game is snap – apple. An apple is hung from the ceiling and all try to catch it in their mouth with their hands behind their backs. (4) Young people try to peel an apple without breaking the skin. Then they throw the skin over their shoulders and whatever letter is formed they say they will marry a person whose name begins with that letter‘.

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Archival Reference: The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0922, Page 153

Dunlavin:

Dunlavin seemed to have put a different spin on ‘ducking for apples’ game . The following was recounted by 72 year old Mr P. Esemonde from Dunlavin:

Other customs were practised on Hallow Eve such as “Ducking” and suspending an apple and soap to the ceiling, each player is blindfolded in turn and attempts to catch either the apple or soap in his mouth. Should he catch the soap and taste it he would show a very unpleasant face and this sour expression of his would make the onlookers laugh heartily‘.

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Archival Reference: The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0914, Page 074

Also noted by Terence Casey from Dunlavin

On Hallow Eve people play a lot of tricks. A basin is filled with water and coins are thrown into it, then the children “duck” for them. Then they tie an apple and a bar of soap on a piece of string and hang it from the ceiling, then they spin them around and a boy or girl try to catch the apple and avoid the soap. A boy and a girl put two nuts on the fire and if the nut belonging to the girl rolls into the fire it means that the girl will run away from the boy. If the two nuts rolls into the fire together they will be married‘.

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The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0914, Page 156

Rathnew:

By 13 year old Máire Ní Choncúbhair from Rathnew:

There are a lot of different Customs here in Rathnew that are done at different parts of the year. On Hallow Eve a crowd of people gather together and put all kinds of clothes on them and they put “vizards” on them. Then they go about from house to house looking for money apples and nuts. One of them would have a melodeon or mouth organ and he would play a tune on the melodeon or whatever he would have and the rest of them would sing or dance to the tune‘.

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Archival Reference: The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0927, Page 040

Avoca:

A more unusual or lesser known tradition associated with Halloween was provided by Mrs Johnson of Avoca on the 18th of May 1936(37?) who shared a number customs & beliefs from her young days.

At Hallow Eve the girls & boys went to a cabbage plot & pulled a head of cabbage each. A lot of clay on the root foretold a rich husband or wife while little or no clay foretold a poor husband or wife .A fat stumpy head of cabbage meant a low partner for the picker while a long thin head meant a tall life-partner‘.

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The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0925, Page 122

Throwing out water:

Finally, a word of advice from Mr. P. Stones of Valleymount:

You should not throw out water on Hallow E’en for if you do you will hear the souls in Purgatory walking‘.

© National Folklore Collection, UCD

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