Where Halloween's Story Began

Evidence gathered from archaeology digs, legends, myths and Celtic history have all been examined to unearth the story of the authentic origins of Halloween in Ireland.

According to Irish folklore, Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic tradition of Samhain. The old Irish for ‘summer’s end’, Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and the start of the New Year.

The Púca Festival town of Athboy is an important hub of Halloween tradition. Old manuscripts tell us that Tlachtga or The Hill of Ward, was a site of great Samhain gathering.

It was at Tlachtga that the ancient Irish lit a fire from which all the fires in Ireland were rekindled. Recent archaeological excavations there suggest this ancient hill was used for feasting and celebration over 2,000 years ago, and to this day the Boyne Valley remains one of the many important historical sites of Halloween tradition in Ireland. Each of these sites has its own story, one being that every Samhain a host of otherworldly beings emerge from Oweynagat (cave of the cats) at Rathcroghan in County Roscommon.

The celebration of the Celtic new year involved lighting fires, feasting on the crops of the harvest, music, gathering together and storytelling, a very vibrant and long-lasting tradition in Ireland.

The meaning of Púca

At ancient New Year when light turns to dark, the veil between realities draws thin, rules can be broken, and the spirits move between worlds. Púca comes alive, a shape-shifting spirit, roaming the night and changing the fortunes of those that cross her path Púca immerses you in the true spirit of Halloween transforming the night into a playground.

The belief in the closeness of the Otherworld and the return of the Dead was associated with Halloween. Wearing costumes and masks offered protection. The fairies couldn’t abduct you and you got to frighten your neighbours. Tricks were played on the unsuspecting, which may be the origin of the ubiquitous trick or treating.

Turnips and other root vegetables were carved with grotesque faces and lit with candles to scare and to protect. When the Irish emigrated to America, they adapted the tradition to pumpkins, because turnips were a lot harder to come by.

Often carved pumpkins are referred to as jack-o’-lanterns, after the Irish legend of trickster Jack, who is caught between Heaven and Hell and must roam the earth with nothing but a lantern to light his way. His light was a distraction that led people astray and into the unknown.

Bobbing for apples is a traditional Irish game at Halloween. Apples and nuts are the festival foods, as the harvest was gathered during Autumn. Like other quarter days the eve of the dark winter season was a time to foretell what your future held and also your marriage prospects. Many games were played to determine who would be married within the year, especially the recipient of the ring in the Barmbrack cake.

Púca Festival remembers traditions and the spirits of Samhain by reopening the pathways of reflection and celebration carved by travellers at Halloween over 2,000 years ago.

Samhain Food Traditions

Ghost Turnip ©National Museum of Ireland