Happy Halloween! If you’re an ISI student studying English in Dublin, Ireland is very much the place to be.
It’s that time of year again – the days are short, the nights are long, trick-or-treaters are out in their droves and the cinema screens are being flooded with horror films. Yes, it’s Halloween again! Yet you may be surprised to learn that Halloween and Ireland have a very special connection, and there are few more appropriate places to be on 31st October…
Origins of Halloween in Ireland
Halloween first originated as the ancient Celtic festival Samhain over a thousand years ago. It marked the passage from the end of one year to the beginning of another, from darkness into light. For the Celts, the period around the end of October marked the end of the year, roughly coinciding with the very end of the summer’s harvests and the beginnings of the winter.
Vestiges of this practice survived over the years, not least in the Roman festival Pomona (celebrated by the eating of apples, a practice which continues today), and gradually came to be subsumed into the emerging Christian calendar.
As paganism was on the wane, the 7th century Pope Boniface declared 1st November to be All Saints Day, which was also known as All Hallow’s Day. Accordingly, the evening before came to be known as All Hallow’s Eve – which over the years was contracted into the word we now know of as ‘Halloween’.
Though the festival of Samhain was celebratory in character (roughly corresponding to our contemporary New Year’s Eve celebrations), it also had its sinister side. The transition between the old year and the next was seen as a time of great instability by the Celts as the souls of the departed returned to their onetime homes. The borders between the human world and the supernatural Otherworld were believed to be at their weakest during this period. It was thought that malignant entities, such as the pooka, the banshee, shapeshifters and the fairies, could come and go far more freely than at any other time of the year.
As a defence against the powers of darkness, people would light huge bonfires to ward off any attacking demons. Loud noise was made to scare off the spectres, and some people would leave food offerings outside their homes to appease them. People would also wear hideous masks and other disguises in order to scare away the otherworldly intruders. This should all start to sound familiar to us – for even today, Halloween is associated with dressing up like witches and vampires, and with an atmosphere of fear and terror in general.
Some Irish Halloween Traditions
Besides the widespread children’s tradition of trick-or-treating, other Irish Halloween traditions include ‘Bobbing for apples’ (i.e. struggling to eat an apple without using one’s hands – the apple connection goes back to the Roman times), as well as eating a type of bread known as ‘barmbrack’, most often shortened to simply ‘brack’. One of these loaves might include a coin (believed to bring good fortune to whoever found it) or even a ring, implying that the recipient might soon get married! The practice of putting objects in loaves of bread has been somewhat discontinued in recent years however, for fear of choking and other mishaps.
Irish Literature for Halloween
Irish literature has many examples of the macabre, and there are many Irish ghost and horror stories that are appropriate to be read around Halloween. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-73) was a Dublin-born author who showed an especial taste for tales of terror, and many of his stories have an Irish setting. Some of his best short tales of the supernatural include The Child that went with the Fairies, Ghost Stories of Chapelizod, An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street, as well as the stories that comprise his collection In a Glass Darkly.
But perhaps the best known Irish literary figure to be associated with horror is Bram Stoker (1847-1912). Born in Clontarf, Dublin, he later moved to London and found work at the Lyceum Theatre under the direction of the actor-manager Sir Henry Irving. On the side, he wrote a copious number of novels and short stories, many of them dealing with ghosts and other supernatural matters. Yet by far his most famous work is his 1897 novel Dracula, which has never been out of print since its publication.
The figure of the vampire count from Transylvania has received global recognition, and has been adapted for film, theatre and television more often than any other literary character (except perhaps for Sherlock Holmes). The Bram Stoker Festival is held annually in Dublin in the run-up to Halloween, and many enjoyable readings, performances and other events take place. More information may be found on their excellent website.
So there you have it – if it’s 31st October and you’re an ISI student studying English in Dublin, keep your wits about you, you may be in for some scares! Halloween in Ireland has a long and rich tradition behind it, and its popularity shows no signs of abating. Have fun – and a fright!