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Halloween and its Irish origins

Did you know Halloween originated in Ireland?

Halloween was originally an ancient Irish pagan festival called ‘Samhain’ (pronounced: sow-in), meaning ‘end of summer’. During Samhain the Celts wore costumes to disguise themselves and light bonfires as protection from evil spirits or fairies.

What’s in a name? From All Hallows Even to Hallowe’en

The night before All Hallows’ Day (the original name for All Saints’ Day, November 1st) is called is called 'All Hallows Even' or 'All Hallows' Eve'. 'All Hallows' Even' was shortened to 'Hallowe'en' by the 16th century. The word Hallowe’en began to lose its apostrophe in the 18th century and is now most spelled ‘Halloween’.

Halloween traditions from Ireland


The tradition of carving pumpkins began in Ireland in the 18th century. The Irish carved turnips and placed lights in their windows to keep away roaming spirits on Halloween night. When Irish immigrants travelled to North America, they adapted the tradition and used pumpkins instead as turnips were less common.

Halloween costumes

The ancient Celts believed on the evening of October 31st, the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. It was tradition to dress up as animals or beasts in the hope of hiding from malevolent spirits.


When the Celts were disguising themselves in costumes to celebrate Samhain, banquet tables were prepared to appease unwelcome spirits.  In later centuries, Europeans began dressing as ghosts, demons, and other evil creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink. By the ninth century, Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted older pagan rites. In 1000 A.D. the church designated November 2nd as ‘All Souls’ Day’.

Poor people visited the houses of wealthier families and receive pastries called soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the homeowners’ dead relatives. Known as "souling," the practice was later taken up by children, who would go from door to door asking for gifts such as food, money, and ale.

In Scotland and Ireland, young people took part in a tradition called guising, dressing up in costume and accepting offerings from various households. Rather than pledging to pray for the dead, they would sing a song, recite a poem, tell a joke, or perform another sort of “trick” before collecting their treat, which typically consisted of fruit, nuts, or coins.


From the Irish name ‘Bairín Breac’ this is a traditional Irish Halloween cake which essentially a sweet bread with fruit through it as well as some other treats. Shop-bought barmbracks still contain and ring but if you make it at home and add your own treats it’s even more fun.

Each member of the family gets a slice and each prize has a different meaning:

  • The rag – your financial future is doubtful
  • The coin – you will have a prosperous year
  • The ring – impending romance or continued happiness
  • The thimble – you’ll never  marry

What are your favourite Halloween traditions? Let us know in the comments section below.

Get all your treats at Lee Valley Ireland and browse our range of flannel collarless shirts, flannel nightwear, traditional Aran knitwear and authentic Irish gifts.

Oíche Shamhna Shona Duit. Happy Halloween.

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