Halloween Traditions in Wicklow

Halloween Divination Game (1935)

As chillier, wetter weather settles in around us and the nights begin to get longer, the end of the harvest period arrives, and with it, the festival of Samhain (1st of November). This date traditionally marked the first day of winter, and the pace and rhythm of life at this time slowed to reflect this seasonal change. Cattle were brought from summer pastures to fields closer to the family homestead, and corn, apples, turnips and potatoes were all harvested and stored at this time, along with turf and wood needed as fuel for the cold nights ahead..

As the beginning of the dark season, Oíche Shamhna (literally ‘November Night’), or Halloween, celebrated at sundown on the 31st of October, has long stood out in popular tradition as a time particularly associated with the spirits of the otherworld, and individuals out travelling the road at this time were considered liable to meet with the fairies, the dead or the púca (the mischievous phantom horse that would abduct wayfarers, taking them on terrifying rides across the countryside by night).

Regarding Halloween night, an 1870 AD publication titled Irish Folk Lore relates that, ‘the dark and sullen Phooka is then particularly mischievous and many mortals are abducted to fairy land’. However, help is at hand, and we are told that, should we meet with the fairies on this night, those who have been abducted away to the otherworld by them can be returned to us by our throwing the dust from under our feet at their group; sage advice, though indiscriminately throwing dust at groups of passers-by is not advised on this, or any, particular evening.

It was customary on Halloween for bands of youths to group together and call to houses in the locality. In the more southerly portion of Wicklow, these groups were known as the ‘Vizards’, or ‘Juggies’. They travelled in disguise, wearing masks, old clothes or rags, and on calling upon a house the frightening troupe would enter, playing music on whistles and melodeons, and dancing, while entreating the occupants of the house to ‘help the Halloween party’. In Kilpeddar, in east Wicklow, it was customary for those present to throw up pennies, apples and nuts for the group after they had finished their music and dancing, and each would have to rush to compete to see who could gather the greatest spoils, before traipsing off to the next house. In other instances a sliced brack was given to them, and the individual who found the ring hidden in the cake was fated next to marry.

After supper, a great many games were played. The most common perhaps being ‘bobbing’ or ‘ducking’ for apples or coins in a basin of water, where a boy or girl would attempt to retrieve either coin or apple from the water filled basin with their hands behind their backs. Similar impossible tasks involved the biting of an apple which was hanging from a string, without the use of your hands. This might seem bad enough, but a more sinister version of the same tradition was practiced in Dunlavin in west Wicklow, where an apple, along with a bar of soap, were both suspended from the ceiling before being sent spinning around together; the unfortunate contestant hoping to bite apple, and avoid soap.

Games were also played that aimed to show what the future held in store. One common game recorded in Baltinglass in west Wicklow began by the placing of three saucers on the table; one contained clay, one water, and another, a ring. The table being set, a blindfolded individual, was spun around several times, and would hold their hand out over one of the three saucers. If their hand lay over the clay, it meant death within the coming year. The saucer containing water meant that the individual would travel abroad, and, should their hand hover over the ring, the settled life lay ahead, for they would be married within the coming year.

Many popular customs practised at this time relate to marriage and betrothal. For example, in Blessington in north Wicklow, it was believed that the girl, who ate an apple alone before a mirror at midnight while holding a lighted candle in her hand, would see her future husband peeping over her shoulder through the darkness. An apple peeled in one go and let fall on the floor would also reveal the initials of a future spouse.

After supper was had, and all the games were played, it was customary at this time to set a feast at the table, in the belief that the ancestral dead or the fairies, who were particularly active at this time, would visit the house after the family had retired to bed. The hearth was cleaned, the kitchen swept, and food and drink placed on the table, and supernatural visitors could be heard moving the furniture and plates about.

For those daring enough to venture out of the house at this time, music and revelry were often heard coming from the raths and fairy forts of the locality. We are also told that outside the local church at midnight, a voice could be heard reciting the names of those in the parish fated to die in the coming year. If no voice was heard, then, happily, there would be no deaths that year.

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