Halloween A-BOO! Joe McGowan Chats About Halloween Traditions in Ireland

The following is a transcript taken from the LIVE members' chat hosted here at TheWildGeese.com on Thursday, October 31, 2013 with County Sligo historian and author (and fellow Wild Geese member), Joe McGowan.  Joe's website and Facebook page are filled with valuable information and resources, mostly relating to Sligo and northwest Ireland.  Some editing has been applied for clarity.


The Wild Geese:  Céad míle fáilte, a chairde! So glad to see each one of you who have stopped by for this evening’s LIVE community chat with Joe McGowan. Joe is a historian and author from County Sligo in Ireland. Our focus this evening is on the origins and customs of Halloween.
My name is Ryan O’Rourke, and I’ll be the moderator for this evening’s chat.  We’ll now turn it over for the next 30-40 minutes to Joe. Welcome, Joe!

Joe Mc Gowan:  Thanks, WG. Glad to be here.

The Wild Geese:  Thrilled to have someone of your expertise on this subject, Joe.

Joe Mc Gowan:  Dunno about that, WG. We'll see! :-)

The Wild Geese:  Who has our first question?

Belinda Evangelista:  Joe tell us about Halloween at the time you were a boy

Joe Mc Gowan:  Hello Belinda.  We used to steal the school gate and play other tricks emulating the spirits, I suppose.

Tiffany Silverberg:  The whole Gate? That's quite a feat!

Joe Mc Gowan:  It was a small school and a small gate. The nuns used to beat hell out of us the next day!

The Wild Geese:  :-D

Belinda Evangelista:  What were the treats of yore?

Joe Mc Gowan:  Barmbrack loaf with a ring it, hazel nuts, fruits, and also potato bread.  All of these very scarce in the 40s and 50s.

Owen Ward:  When you were young did the older folk have any Irish stories regarding Halloween?

Joe Mc Gowan:  Nothing specific. We believed that the souls of our forbears were out on that night. Also the fairies going from place to place.  We used to leave treats out for them.

Owen Ward:  What kind of treats for the fairies?

Joe Mc Gowan:  Poteen and raisin bread

The Wild Geese:  Poitín! Was that still there in the morning?

Joe Mc Gowan:  No! it was gone.

Belinda Evangelista:  I'll be a fairy tonight so

Joe Mc Gowan:  We'll get you a drop any time of the year, Belinda!

Owen Ward:  What about banshees?

Joe Mc Gowan:  The banshee is a separate tradition.  Cries only on a death.

Kelly O'Rourke:  Joe, did Jack-o-Laterns originate from Samhain?

Joe Mc Gowan:  I believe so. We used hollowed-out turnips.  We also used to pull cabbage in the fields and throw them about the roads.  Also take the wheels off horse carts and hide them.

The Wild Geese:  Ha!

Ryan O'Rourke:  In what era did things transition from Samhain to what we now know as Halloween in Ireland, Joe?

Joe Mc Gowan:  It was a lot of fun but not like today.  There was no profit in it then for anyone.
Wouldn't think it was a step, rather a gradual process through the years.

Belinda Evangelista:  Did you have any games on the night?

Joe Mc Gowan:  It was also a time for divination ... particularly for the girls to see who they would marry.

Localbooks.ie:  Any bonfires, Joe? This was a strong tradition in our part of the country!

Joe Mc Gowan:  Games were ducking for apples and coins etc.  No bonfires here. Our bonfires are in midsummer.

The Wild Geese:  FYI ... Here's a brief biographical sketch about Joe and his work from his own website, SligoHeritage.com.

Belinda Evangelista:  How did the divination work?

Joe Mc Gowan:  Raking the rick in the name of Satan was another game for the boys -- mostly to see who they would marry, and marriages often did result!

Owen Ward:  Joe, what part of Sligo are you from?  I had relations in Easkey, Skeffington, and Rolston.

Joe Mc Gowan:  Mullaghmore.  Difficult to cover everything here For more go to my FB page for a link to website and customs.  Also in my book 'Echoes of a Savage Land'

The Wild Geese:  Check out Joe's "Sligo Heritage" Facebook page.

Joe Mc Gowan:  Men raked the rick in an anti-clockwise direction three times while invoking Old Nick.  Following this an image of the future wife would appear at the end of the rick.  This is mentioned in Merriman's “Midnight Court” and lots of other customs as well.

Tiffany Silverberg:  Old Nick as in St. Nick? Or some other guy?

Joe Mc Gowan:  Yes, Satan.  Also raking anti-clockwise is against nature and the sun.

Tiffany Silverberg:  Oh THAT guy! :)

Owen Ward:  What did the local priest think of this?

Belinda Evangelista:  Good question, Owen.

Joe Mc Gowan:  Sounds sinister, but it was mostly games and fun.  Too much to cover here.  Paganism lived happily alongside Christianity in Ireland, Owen.  There were and are many pagan practises still about.

John W. Hurley:  Joe I've heard that they have a unique Halloween tradition on the Aran Islands where the islanders dress up as spirits and mingle with others who are not disguised (say at the local pub), but those disguised as spirits never speak and are basically ignored by the "living." Do you know if that's true?

Joe Mc Gowan:  More likely that they wouldn't speak as the voice would be recognised.  We often do that in the Mummers and Wrenboys.  Part of the fun in disguise is of course not being recognised and meeting people the next day and they being ignorant of where you were the night before

Bit Devine:  Also a good way to find out what people might really think of ya... ;-)

Belinda Evangelista:  What was the typical Halloween dinner?

Joe Mc Gowan:  No typical Halloween dinner, Belinda.

Bit Devine:  Colcannon was always a Halloween dinner tradition in my Gran's home ... different region ... so perhaps that is why.

Joe Mc Gowan:  Must say I miss the old innocent times.  Too commercial now and all about money for the merchants.

Tiffany Silverberg:  Any traditions for All Saints Day, November 1?

Joe Mc Gowan:  Most to the action here was on Halloween The fun on Nov 1 was seeing what mischief happened the night before We also went to Mass on that day

Localbooks.ie:  Any sort of door-to-door trick-or-treating as a boy, Joe?

Joe Mc Gowan:  There was no trick-or-treat or anything like it in this area, no.

Localbooks.ie:  Any new titles on the way to look forward to?

Joe Mc Gowan:  Working on a book of short stories now for spring of 2014.  Also “Sligo Folk Tales” for The History Press.

Bit Devine:  Something to look forward to!

Localbooks.ie:  Keep us posted!

Joe Mc Gowan:  Will do.

The Wild Geese:  We want to thank Joe McGowan for joining us in the chat room this evening.  And thanks to all who joined in!

Tiffany Silverberg:  Yes, thanks Joe!!

Localbooks.ie:  Thanks Joe, very interesting!

The Wild Geese:  Be sure to have a look at Joe's books.  Some fascinating titles there!

Belinda Evangelista:  Slán, Joe.

Joe Mc Gowan:  Welcome, everyone. Difficult to do the season justice in this format. Slán, gach duine.

The Wild Geese:  Thanks again, Joe ... you did great. I think most of us learned a great deal about Halloween in Ireland via this chat session.  Oiche mhaith, gach duine!


Read more about Halloween in Ireland


Views: 867

Tags: Chat, Folklore, Halloween, Members, Mythology, Preservation

Comment by Toni Maguire on November 3, 2013 at 7:45am

I have just been reading the comments about Halloween and I have realised that I did not get my mum to make me a bread dumpling this year (Something I have never managed to get right).  I have fond memories of this special food which was made from day old plain bread that was soaked in water, then mixed with dried fruit marinated in whisky and added to mixed spice and cinnamon, sugar and suet.  This monster of a pudding was then placed in a white cotton pillowcase (A special one which mum had for the job) and placed in a cauldron of boiling water to cook for hours and fill the house with the hot spicy smells of winter. 

When it was finished the pillow case was folded back to reveal a pudding which the family would take days to eat in every way possible; it would be consumed hot, cold, with custard or with out, coming into the kitchen or leaving it, but the best way to eat this bounty was fried in the pan as part of your Ulster Fry!

I can't give you a recipe, it was never written down just 'half a cup of this' or 'a handful of that', but I will try to get mum to make me one and video it for posterity.

Comment by Gerry Regan on November 4, 2013 at 6:13pm

Toni, with that morsel can we coax you into recalling more of your childhood, and the role played by this special woman? And what whiskey was used, any idea at this remove? Was it Irish or Scotch?


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