Fairies, banshees, ghosts and superstitions - a look back at the old customs of Hallowe'en
Fairies, banshees, ghosts and the souls and spirits returning from purgatory for one night loomed large in the imaginations of our foremothers and forefathers as they feasted on nuts, apple, cabbage, fadge, boxty and cake during the great harvest festival of Hallowe'en.
In the late 1930s the Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Collection - under the direction of Séamus Ó Duilearga and Séan Ó Súilleabháin - travelled the country collecting thousands of traditions and stories from schoolchildren at national schools across the 26 counties.
Dozens of stories about the old Samhain customs - often pagan in origin - were collected by young people from their parents and grandparents and elderly neighbours in the years 1937-1939.
They make for fascinating reading and are an incredible archive of the traditions of yesteryear many of which survive to this day.
Maureen Mc Cormick, aged 12, from Teampull Dubhglaise in Drumbologe, near Churchill, told schoolmaster Seán C. Ó Dómhnaill that there was an old custom of throwing 'cabbage at the door slip on Hallowe'en night'.
Mary McNutt, a pupil at Barkhall, Letterkenny, got the following story from her father Mr. H. Mc Nutt, who was aged 48 at the time. Some of the traditions described - such as bobbing apples - have survived down to our own days:
"We all have good sport eating nuts, bean, and apples on Hallowe'en night. Some people celebrate it by hitting other people's doors with cabbage stalks. Other people burn live nuts as a man and his girl to see which of them will die first.
"The people must be present in the house and then take the ashes of each nut and dream upon them. The dream is supposed to come true. Other people tie apples to the roof and try to catch them with their mouths. Others put an apple into a dish of water and try to lift it out with their mouths. Whoever lifts it out gets it."
Sarah Goudie, aged 13, from the Robertson school in Raphoe, gave teacher Tomás Ó Lochaoidh another yarn which stressed the importance of the fruits of the harvest in the Hallowe'en tradition locally.
"The people get nuts and apples at Hallowe'en. The customs at present are burning nuts, putting a basin of water on a chair. Someone gets a piece of cord and ties the person's hands and they try to get a bit of the apple with their mouth.
"If they get a piece of the apple they get it to keep. Another custom is to tie an apple up to the ceiling and try to get the apple. The people have an apple cake for their tea.
"There is a ring in the cake. It is said who ever will get the ring will have the longest life. Some other people say who ever gets the ring will be first married in their house. The day after Hallowe'en is called All Saints' Day. The day after All Saints' Day is called Souls' Day. The names of some of the Saints are St. Patrick and St. Columba."
Sarah related that in her father's time - around about 1900 - the custom would have been to raid their neighbour's cabbage gardens.
"Every one would have brought a cabbage which they pulled in the garden. The loss of the cabbage was mostly taken in good part by the owner. It was looked on as old custom even in those days.
"They cut the stalks from the cabbage head and some of the girls and boys went in front of the house where some bad tempered person lived. They hit the door two or three raps with the 'kale runt' as the cabbage stalk was called in those days at the same time shouting 'Hallowe'en night'.
"The old man of the house came running out and opened the door. When some of the boys coming behind would throw a cabbage head in the door way which probably would tumble him. Hallowe'en is kept as a pagan feast," went Sarah's story.
Brigid Harkin, a school pupil at Star of the Sea, Glengivney, told schoolmaster Brian Mac Giolla Easbuic, of a fairy story she got from a local man Dan McLaughlin.
Given that Dan was aged 75 at the time the stories were gather in the late 1930s it is possible his yarns date to the middle part of the 19th century at the very least.
"I have heard the following beliefs regarding the fairies. On Hallowe' en night the fairies are supposed to be out riding ben-weeds for horses. In olden times the children would have to have salt and meal on their hands to keep the fairies from harming them.
"Fairies were supposed to take people away to their forts and sometimes left 'changlings' in place of the child or person taken. People believed that the tongs should be placed over the cradle when the child is sleeping alone as a precaution against fairies harming the child. It is also believed that if the tongs is put over the 'irons' by the fire, the fairies cannot enter the house," according to Dan.
Another tradition around north Inishowen was to place red ribbon around the cow's horn keeps the cows safe from fairies. Holy water was also good for protection against the fairies.
The 'wee folk' were known, however, to 'shoot cows' although there were remedies against this.
"We are told that fairies used to shoot cows, when the cows would 'graze' on a 'gentle' spot. We call a place 'gentle' when it is supposed to belong to fairies. A 'shot' cow became weak and would not eat.
"There lived in this district a man named Denis Kelly in Belure, who could cure a 'shot cow'. He was always sent for when this happened. When Denis came he measured the cow and found where she was 'shot'.
"The cure was the 'coom' (or black) off nine pots and nine grains of shot from a flask (ammunition holder) for a muzzle loading gun. This shot drove out the fairy shot and the cow became well again," was how the story Dan gave to Brigid put it.
Mr. McLaughlin would have been familiar with such things as there were fairies near him.
"There is a fairy fort in Dan McLaughlin's land in Glenagivney and very often fairies were heard singing, clapping, drilling and churning un this place. William Mc Laughlin is supposed to have seen the fairies here quite recently. This fort is made round and built of stone and lis locally called 'the fort'.
"The fairies punish anyone who interferes with a holly bush by taking the hair off their heads. A dead coal tied in the tail of a child's frock, kept away the fairies," Brigid recounted.
A drop of poitín was another way of placating the fairies.
"When the people of Glenagivney made 'wee still' whiskey or poteen, they threw the first drop to the fairies. Fairies sometimes punished people who offended them by putting humps on their backs."
Frances Gallagher who attended Creeslough National School got a great store of information from her grandmother - a Mrs. Hay. The 'burning of nuts' was a tradition at Rooskey in Fanad where she lived.
"In olden days Hallowe'en was a night of great festivity. One old custom was called 'burning the nuts'. The names of a girl or boy was given to each nut. If the nuts burned quickly, then there love would be good and true, but if they jumped or sizzled, then love quarrels would follow," she stated, recalling that an old rhyme was associated with the custom: 'Two hazel nuts I threw into the flame, And to each I gave a sweetheart's name.'
Again autumn fruits and nuts were an important part of the celebrations as they remain today.
"Hallowe'en has been called nut-crack night, because people used to sit over the fire and crack nuts with their teeth and fling them in the fire. Another old custom was called ducking for apples. With your hands tied behind your back you were to try to get an apple out of a dish of water.
"Long ago it was the custom for a girl to take a candle and to put an apple in front of a looking glass. She would comb her hair at the same time, and do you know what was supposed to happen? She would see her future husband peeping over her shoulder!"
Bonfires were another feature of the Samhain feast as they were at Lúnasa (the August harvest festival) and St. John's Eve, which was celebrated close to the summer solstice, or grianstad an tsamhraidh.
"Another common practice, was to light a big bonfire, just as we do on the Fourth of November. When the flames had died down they collected the ashes carefully and placed them in a circle. Then they each placed a stone within the magic circle. If before morning any stone was moved it meant harm to the owner," Frances told her teacher U. Ní Pháirce.
Beyond the fruit and nuts there were many food traditions - both related to feasting but equally to appease the spirits.
"Cakes called Soul Cakes were distributed on Hallowe'en. These cakes were made from oaten meal, sugar, water or milk. The meal and water or milk were mixed together and a little sugar was added.
"They were then cut into squares and put on the griddle and left until they were hardened. They were then taken off and left on a window or some other place to cool. On receiving these the peasants prayed that the next crop might be blessed.
"Another kind of cake was shaped like a triangle and was to be eaten all through the night, so we suppose appetites in those days were very sharp indeed!
"Long ago in the country districts the people boiled a big pot of potatoes and mashed them. Before going to bed that night they put on a big fire swept up the floor put the pot of potatoes in the middle of the floor.
"It was believed that the spirits of the departed people would come and sit on the chairs and eat the potatoes. Some of the people even put plates of potatoes on the table with wine or some other drink," wrote Frances.
Hallowe'en was also a time of superstitions to do with courtship and marriage:
"Another old custom was to get three saucers and to fill one with water, one with milk and to leave the other empty. Then those who were going to take part in this game were blindfolded and were to come in one by one and to touch a saucer.
"If they touched the one with the milk in it they would be married soon. If they touched the one with the water in it they wouldn't be married until a long while afterwards. But if they touched the one with nothing in it they would be old maids or bachelors."
Andrew Wilkinson was another pupil at Creeslough. From Masiness, he collected tales of banshees and ghosts from a Mrs. Ann Mc Ginley, aged 83.
"Long ago the people always had a big feast on that night. One of the old customs was for all the people to gather together and have a big feast and tell ghost stories about banshees and places that were supposed to be haunted.
"The feast consisted of poundies and wine. Then they swept the floor they boiled another pot of poundies and left them in the middle of the floor with wooden spoons around it and a crock of wine on the table, then they went home, some of them were very much afraid to do so as they thought they would meet ghosts or other things.
"One man on his way home was going along a very lonely road when he saw a donkey lying on the road in front of him. He leaped over the donkey and away running up the road screaming, he met a crowd coming to see what was wrong they stopped him and asked him what was the matter, and he told them his Grandfather had come back to haunt him and that he was now on the road," went Mrs. McGinley's story.
From Alice Flood of Niall Mór National School in Killybegs we get a story of 'strange happenings on Hallowe'en night' from Mrs. Flood - presumably her mother.
"I heard this story about a man who went out one Hallowe'en night to visit in a house about half a mile from his own. When he was returning late that night he thought he heard noises in a field nearby and when he looked he saw a man dressed in red riding the nicest horse he ever saw and behind him he saw a number of other men riding horses and some of them were running and shouting to their leader to get them a horse.
"Then the leader would pull a weed and immediately it would turn into a horse. The man hid behind a tree and watched them for a long time. Then he thought he would speak to them but when he went out of his hiding place he could see nobody," Alice's yarn went.
Willie Wray from Drumnahoul National School stated: "Sometimes we play games hanging apples to the roof and trying to catch it with our mouth. The boys go about throwing cabbages at every one’s door."
Ruby Gibson, who attended Cooley National School at Moville, got a frightening fairy story with a happy ending from William Thompson who lived in the Gulladoo area:
"Jamie Friel and his mother lived in a small cottage beside a ruined castle. In this castle the fairies lived. One Hallowe'en night he went up to the castle and the fairies all welcomed him. When it became very late the fairies asked Jamie would he go with them as they were going to steal a young lady and he said he would.
They all got on horses and rode for many miles until they came to the house. They dismounted near a window and the fairies took the lovely lady and left an image instead. They each took their turn in carrying her and as they were passing over Jamie's house he asked to carry her.
"The fairies gave him the lady and he ran with her into his own house. The fairies were very angry and cast a spell over the lady that she wold be deaf and dumb. She lived with Jamie and his mother for one year. When Hallowe'en came round again Jamie went to the castle.
"As he listened below the window he heard one of the fairies say that three drops out of her glass she held in her hand would cure the lady. Jamie rushed into the castle and grabbed the glass and ran home to give to the lady. She was now able to speak and she wanted to go home so Jamie took her to her home.
"Her father and mother would not believe that she was their daughter so Jamie told them all that had happened. When Jamie was finished they believed the story for the girl had a ring which her father had given her. Jamie and the lady were married after that and he never went back to the fairies castle."
Ruby also left us a series of local superstitions.
"On Hallow-eve night the fairies come out and mothers used to rub oatmeal on their children's heads to keep the fairies from taking them away. If any girls gives her boy hankies for a present before that year is out they shall be parted.
"If a maiden eats an apple before the looking glass on Hallowe'en night she will see her husband to be looking over her shoulder. If a knife falls there is a stranger to the house. If two spoons are in the same cup there is going to be a wedding.
"If a Holy Picture falls there is going to be a death. If a chimney goes afire there will be a death in that house. If a cock crows at 12 o'clock it is very unlucky. If a woman whistled in anybody's house she would never be let into that house again because the people thought a whistling woman was a whistling devil."
Lottie Stewart, aged 12, from Malin, recalled the legend of 'the Caves of Straws' which she got from an A. Stewart.
"People say that there are small caves to be seen at Straws near Carndonagh. They are supposed to be the dwelling places of the Tuatha Dé Danannan after the Celts conquered them in this country.
"Each small cave is in the form of a tunnel about four yards in length. A girl or boy three foot high could stand inside. A man could creep through the tunnel on his knees.
"On a Hallowe'en night if you go to these caves it is said you can hear the Tuatha Dé Danannan yet planning to conquer the Celts.
"Someone went in through one of these caves one day, and he discovered a little flat table and two chairs built in the cave, at the far end of it. On Hallowe'en night he was supposed to hear a gentle tread of feet, coming to his door. The latch was lifted and the door opened.
"The man of the house, went to the door, but no one was there. He waited behind the door this time, and the steps came to the door again and the door was opened. It was supposed to be the Tuatha Dé Dannan coming to kill the man, because he went through the cave.
"They put a curse on him, and he is an old bent man now. They said, 'He bent himself to go through one tunnel we will make him bent and old now, as punishment'."
Robert Campbell was a pupil at Carrowbeg between Tremone and Kinnagoe. Two informants - a Robert Campbell, aged 82, who may have been his grandfather, and a Mrs. McDermott, who was aged 61, told him that the fairies were active at this time of year.
"They walk a lot on Hallowe'en also. On Hallowe'en nights people used to eat potatoes and bread. The lady of the house had the spoons nicely shined up and a fairy came in and asked for the loan of spoons. She said she had none but the ones she was going to use shortly.
"The fairy walked out and when the lady had the meal ready she discovered her spoons were gone and they had to eat the slice of potatoes on the bread and the next day she got the spoons on the place she had left them the day before.
"Sometimes when people do any harm to the fairies they come into the byres and shoot the cows. Once a man knew a place which the fairies inhabited and he went over and said 'Give me a horse'.
"They gave him a horse and then he could ride about the continent for three or four days but he then had to give back the horse to the fairies again. Fairies are never seen after sun-set. Some people in this district used to keep a round stone with a hole in it hanging in the byre so that the fairies would shoot through it and not at the cows."
Eithne Nic an t Saoir, from Ray, collected a number of stories from a 73-year-old farmer called Peadair Uí Ghallochbhair. In that part of Fanad nuts, apples, cakes and courtship rituals were observed.
"There are many old customs attached to Hallowe'en. Nuts and apples are eaten on that night, and a great feast is held. On that night also, apples are burned. The name of a girl is put on one, and the name of a boy on the other.
"If the nuts come together the couple will be married, but if they are separate there will be no marriage. It is said that if a girl buys a salt herring, and roasts it on the fire, and eats it in three bites, bones and all, and goes to bed, - that in the middle of the night she becomes very thirsty, and her future husband will come and give her a drink.
"It is a custom to tie an apple to the roof and whoever can take a bite of the apple without putting his or her hands on it, gets the apple to eat. Cakes are baked and there are rings put in them as on Shrove Tuesday.
"There are also three saucers left on a table -clay is put in one, water in another, and a ring in the other. Then someone comes with a handkerchief round his or her eyes. One walks over to the table, and if he puts his hand on the ring, he will be first married, on the water, he will go over sea and if on the clay he will die."
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Sadie McLaughlin, from Malin, was told two spooky tales that befell one family by her parents, which was collected by the teacher Eilís Nic Uilcín:
"One Hallowe'en night, William Doherty, Killourt, Malin Head, was on his way home, when he was started by a sudden noise of laughter. Then a tall woman appeared from behind a hill laughing loudly. This woman was a fairy.
"Hugh Doherty, William Doherty's son heard a banshee crying mournfully. It could be heard for far around. Shortly after this his father died. It is said that a banshee crying is a sure sign of a death."
Seán Mac Éibhir was a teacher at St. Oran's, Buncrana, and he collected a story from Pat Gill, aged 50, from Sladran.
"Hallowe'en night a crowd of young men were coming from the town. That same night the fairies were out dancing and playing great music. One of the young men was a good dancer and he started to dance to the music of the fairies.
"He danced for a long time and then the fairies took him away from the other men. It was a year before that man turned up again. The next Halloweve night he was seen dancing on the spot and the men went to him and took him home."
Jasmine Morrow, a pupil at Drumfad in Fanad, was told by a Mr. Bernard Price that people used to fast before feasting on Hallowe'en and that in that part of Donegal they also observed 'old Hallowe'en' on November 11, which must have been related to the old Julian Calendar, which was replaced in Ireland by the Gregorian Calendar in 1752.
"In olden times people kept festivals. On Hallow'een it was the custom for them to eat nothing all day until night. Then they had a great feast. After that they had nuts and apples. If there were not many people in one house then some neighbours would come in to the other house to have a good night's fun.
"They would put an apples in a tub of water and see who could have the most bites off it, or they burned nuts. This was on October 31.
"On November 11 they called it old Hallowe'en. On that day the children stole cabbage from people's gardens. They broke them along the road or them at the peoples doors. Sometimes the people fired shots at them to hunt them from their gardens."
Peggie Holmes was a pupil at Ballindrait. A Mr J. Blair told her where she might find fairies at Hallowe'en.
"In olden times the fairies used to live under rocks and stones. If anyone went out on Hallowe'en night it is said that the fairy music would set him mad. There is a story told about a woman who lived near where the fairies were, and she used to throw out water every day till one day the fairy came to her house, and told her not to throw out any more of her water or she would drown them all.
"People would not cut a holly bush on account of the fairies living in them. They also lived in hawthorn bushes."
A scare at bedtime: The devil tore a hole in the wall and took his soulEdmund Weir, from Three Trees, near Quigley's Point, got an interesting yarn from Ned Doherty at Ture.
"On the night before Hallowe'en when a neighbour was coming home he heard a noise like a cart on the cross road in front of him. He went into a house on the side of the road and asked the woman of the house if a cart had passed and she said that none had passed since seven o'clock. He went out and began to run after the supposed cart when he was overtaking the cart the rattle turned into the glen.
"The road that the cart was on follows the glen for about a quarter of a mile. The vehicle went down the glen over the bushes and stones and all the while the occupants laughed and sang heartily.
"The man went back next day to look for tracks but couldn't find any. So people concluded that it must been fairies. The hole where the fairies entered the river is called the Soldier's Hole. An Oak tree hangs over the hole. People think that it is a fairy tree."
Bridget Donaghey went to St. Mary's, Buncrana. She got the following from Mr. George McGee, who was aged 49 and lived at Ballymagan.
She stated: "Long ago it was the custom for the children to get butter and oat meal on top of their heads before going out on Hallowe'en night to keep them safe from the fairies. At that time they believed in fairies and so lest the children would be stolen they put this on them.
"George McGee remembers his mother talking often and often of the times when she was a little girl, and when her mother put oat meal and butter on her hair before she went out.
"He also remembers his mother telling them to keep together on that night, and when going past any lonely place to make no noise. She said that if they heard or saw little folk to bless themselves and to walk on. This happened about seventy years ago."
Andrew Taylor, a pupil at Whitecastle, preserved the following lore from his mother. Both lived at Drung.
"On Halloweve night it was the custom for many strange things to happen. On this night the fairies are supposed to be out and also ghosts. Once night comes children are afraid to go out for fear of meeting a fairy, or seeing a ghost.
"We eat apples and nuts on Halloweve night and sometimes feel sick the next day. We play many sorts of games and tell stories on Halloweve night. We get tea for our supper on Halloweve night instead of porridge.
"One of the games which we play on Halloweve night is called ducking. A tub is filled with water and an apple is put into it. The boy or girl who gets the apples has to follow it to the bottom of the tub. When doing this they get their hair well wet and sometimes spill the water over the floor."
VIDEO: This is the moment three costumed characters danced in the torrential rain at Derry HalloweenBridget Hirrel, of Gaddyduff in Clonmany, heard a tale about the mischief of the fairies from her grandmother who was aged 82.
"One Hallowe'en night a man and woman were coming home in a donkey cart from Buncrana. When they were coming along the road they were lifted in the donkey cart and left in a river near the road.
"They were in the river and were not able to get out. It seemed as if they were tied to the river. They were there for about an hour After that they were taken out and left on the road again. it was the fairies who took them and left them in the river."
Eithne Nic an t Saoir, from Ray in Fanad, was told by 77-year-old farmer Sean Uí Ghallochbhair how people ate 'poundeys, boxty and fadge at Hallowe'en.
Emily Wray, from Monreagh, was told by her grandfather William Gardiner how 'the old people said that no one should put their potatoes in till after St. Patrick's Day and to bring them out before Hallowe'en'.
However, this was no longer the case in the late 1930s.
"Nowadays the potatoes are put in before St. Patrick's Day and brought out before Halloweve. These methods are all done away with now as they are far too slow and besides we need such a quantity of potatoes for shipping," she related.
Joe Ayton, a pupil from Moville, wrote: "The faces that are made out of the turnips are made at Hallowe'en to scare the people."
And Seosamh Mac Suibhne, a teacher at Rashenny, near Ballyliffin, got the following:
"On Hallowe'en night, the children get poundies, apples, and nuts. There is a custom on all souls night, the people leave on a large fire all night, so as the dead in purgatory may come in and warm themselves. It is said that you should not throw out water after sunset, because the dead are standing there, and you throw it on them."
Ada Morrison, a pupil from Greencastle, wrote: "Whoever gets the ring in the barm brack at Hallowe'en is said to be married first."