Samhain – The Celtic New Year

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Note: The following was contributed by an Irish relative in County Sligo, Ireland. He will be a guest contributor from time to time:

Samhain (Sow-inn)

The Celts had a very dark outlook on life. Their day started at sunset with the darkness of night and their year started with Samhain (1st November) and the darkness of winter. Samhain, of course started with the coming of darkness on 31st October and it was the night that the Celts believed that the otherworld was on the move to take up their winter quarters. Every fairy host was on the move that night and if you were unfortunate enough to meet them they would take you with them into their fairy fort from which you would never escape.

There were also other creatures from the otherworld on the move that night. One of these was the pooka, a mischievous spirit, who was not harmful but who liked to play tricks on people. One of his tricks (told to me in riveting detail by my Healy grandfather) was to take the shape of a horse and to invite anyone he met to come with him for an exciting gallop. Once mounted the rider could not dismount as he was taken on a precarious and heart-stopping tour of Mayo. He would go with one mighty jump from the top of Nephin to the top of Croagh Patrick ( a mere thirty miles). During the jump the pooka would dislodge the rider who fell through several thousand feet before he landed safely on the pooka’s back again just as he was about to hit the ground. After many adventures the rider always landed safely back at Magairle in Glencalry my grandfather’s and Mike’s grandfather’s home place. Stories about the pooka were widespread and there is a place in Wicklow called Pollaphooka ( The Pooka’s Hollow).

When I was a child we did not have treats as such but we did play tricks as teenagers to constant and unrelenting adult condemnation. As younger children we had ducking for apples (a Celtic symbol of plenty) and played macabre games involving rings, coins, ashes and water. Depending on which you were assigned by the game you would be married, rich, dead or have migrated within a year. One of the tricks were to open farm gates and let the sheep and cattle wander on the road. Why we bothered I don’t know as to this day the sheep wander the roadside in parts of north Mayo. Another was to throw a turnip or a head of cabbage at a neighbour’s door. Usually a crusty old bachelor was chosen who could be guaranteed to turn the night blue with his diatribe against the rascals, or worse, who had disturbed his evening.

I do not know how or where the American Halloween tradition of trick or treat with masks and costumes evolved but it does appear to have strong echoes of the Celtic Samhain. The Celtic tiger has brought us the trick or treat culture with costumes and one little fellow of about seven said to me he thought it more exciting than Christmas!

Bliain Úr Cheilteach faoi mhaise agus faoi shéin daoibh uilig
(A successful and prosperous Celtic New Year to everyone)








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