A bewitching time of year - investigating the origins of Halloween
Life & Style

A bewitching time of year - investigating the origins of Halloween

OVERLOOKING the plains of Meath, one mile east of Athboy, Tlachtga is the least known of all ancient sites in Ireland. Standing 390 feet above sea level and commanding fine views of the surrounding countryside, it is known locally as the Hill of Ward after a 17th century landowner.

Tara, also in Co. Meath, was where Ireland’s ancient high kings were crowned. But Tlachtga was the religious centre of the Druids, the pagan priests — and probably priestesses. It was here that the high kings turned for their religious sustenance.

This, it is claimed, is the birthplace of a festival celebrated throughout the world, known today as Halloween. Originally it was called Samhain, probably derived from the words ‘meaning end of summer’.

Many legends surround the origins of Halloween, most of them to be taken with a pinch of salt.

The evidence of the Hill of Ward being the original birthplace of Samhain/ Halloween is, naturally, very sketchy. We are, after all, looking back millennia. But it would be fair to say that the Halloween has partially developed from the festival of Samhain in Ireland, and then coalesced with several influences from across Europe, many with origins in mediaeval times.

With the harvest in, Samhain Eve, the last day of the year for the pre-Christian Irish, was a day of great celebration with the craic undoubtedly well above ninety. Great fires were kept burning and feast were laid out so that visitors from the spirit world, the Undead as they were called, would find a welcome. Carousing, licentiousness and excessive behaviour in ancient times played a part in proceedings.

Whatever the exact geographic origins of Halloween, one thing we can be fairly certain of — in Ireland (particularly in the North) and parts of Scotland, celebrations have been going on for centuries, incorporating traditions from pagan harvest celebrations and festivals honouring the dead.

In ancient Ireland, with the arrival of the Christians, the partying was toned down a bit. In time honoured tradition the religious blow-ins hijacked the day. In these islands, November 1 was transformed into All Saints Day. In the 9th century this was extended to the whole Catholic church by Pope Gregory IV.

In Ireland, All Saints Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain — the early Christians weren’t silly. The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, later Halloween and by the 9th century was being celebrated as All Hallow’s Eve across Western Christendom.

Until around the 1960s Halloween in Ireland — particularly in the North - was almost as big a celebration as Christmas. In many parts of rural Ireland demons were said to wander the country at Halloween accompanied by Oliver Cromwell no less. If you weren't wearing a mask, old Oliver would know how to deal with you — he'd had plenty of practice of murder and mayhem in Ireland.

First Christianity then commercialism hijacked the day. But in the latter, the Irish lent a hand. Bats, black cats & witches have little to do directly with the Vigil of Samhain. But they've largely been inspired by Dubliner Bram Stoker, a man very familiar with the Irish legends of the undead walking the Earth, incorporated these in Dracula. The symbols were subsequently purloined by practitioners of the Occult, then pressed into service by commercialism, including bats, steaming cauldrons, witches, black cats, witches and extravagantly-fanged fiends with capes.

Irish and Scottish immigrants took many Halloween customs to North America in the 19th century. Subsequently, through American influence, Halloween spread to other countries by the late 20th and early 21st century