The origin of Halloween lies in the Celt's Autumn festival which was held on the first day of the 11th month - the month known as November in English, but as Samhain in Irish.
To our ancestors it marked the end of the pastoral cycle – a time when all the crops would have been gathered and placed in storage for the long winter ahead, and when livestock would be brought in from the fields and selected for slaughter, or kept within the ring-fort, where the people lived, as much for their warmth as for breeding.
Whether it was the bellowing of animals being slaughtered, or the growing darkness of descending winter, the people associated the time when the souls of the departed would return to their former homes. Adding to the mischief of the early darkness, malevolent spirits were released from the Otherworld, and were visible to mankind. Fires were lit, games were played, and stories were told. Children were kept indoors. Travel was only undertaken in extreme circumstances.
Old stories were gathered by Irish schoolchildren in the 1930s in an inspired national drive tasking children to ask their elders and neighbours about tales and superstitions from times past so that ordinary people’s lives could be preserved and celebrated. What those schoolchildren wrote in their copybooks resulted in the National Folklore Archive’s Schools’ Collection, some of which have been
republished in a captivating book today, An Irish Folklore Treasury, by John Creedon.*
The strange tale of the White Hare of Ballynahinch
There are several stories in our mythology about hares, one of the few native mammals remaining in our countryside. It survives the hunter and the fox, because, it is believed, its coat turns white in winter time, making it invisible on the frosty mountainside. It is also believed to have magical powers, and is the preferred form the women of the Sidhe (the fairy people ) take when they change shape to visit the world ‘above’.
(The following story was told to Mrs J Lysaght of Clifden, and collected by Connie McGrath ).
‘Long ago there was a student from Ballynahinch in France studying to be a priest, and a year before his ordination he was home at his native place. He was always a keen sportsman, and he hunted with an all-black hound which he discovered near Oughterard.
About this time a white hare was often seen on the slopes of the Twelve Pins in the direction of the Maam Valley. It was said that this hare used to suck the cows milk, and many times the poor people of the district would come home in the evening and would not have a drop of milk. Some women also complained that the milk would produce no butter, and they said that the white hare was surely a witch. Some old people in the place said that it was often chased but got safely away from all hounds, and said that there was no hound to kill that hare except an all-black hound.
It was not long before the student priest and his all-black hound raised the hare on the hill-side near Ballynahinch. The hare headed for the valley in the mountains. The chase was very thrilling but the student had a very good view and had high hopes that the black hound would succeed. Among the rocks and round the lakes the hare kept her distance, and for over an hour it seemed as though the hound was baffled, but still the hare was not able to get out into the open mountains. The student saw the hare was ever trying to escape in one direction, and he kept on that side.
At long last the hare headed for a small stream and tumbled down the rugged slopes, while the hound, still in good running form, came in close pursuit. The student saw a little hut or cabin in the distance and in a few moments the hound, the hare and the huntsman were just bes
ide the hut. After a few clever turns the hound was within biting distance from the hare, and just as the hound was springing to bite the hare made one jump in a little opening that acted as a window.
The student rushed to the door, which was small, and stuffed with heather tied in a bundle, and to his great surprise saw an old woman sitting at a spinning wheel and working away as if nothing happened. He questioned her sternly as to whether she saw a hare coming in and she denied that was so. He looked around the cabin, which was made of bog sods, and could see no place where the hare could hide. At last a little vexed, he walked over to the old woman and pulled her off the stool, thinking she might have the hare hidden beside her. To his great amazement he saw a pool of blood on the floor and at once it struck him that the woman was bleeding, she seemed to be out of breath. After a few threats she admitted that she was bleeding, and that she had been bitten by the hound and that she was the white hare that used to suck cows. She promised to give up her evil ways and she did.
This woman was well known before this event. She lived alone in the hut and was never suspected of doing anything wrong.’
NOTES: An Irish Folklore Treasury - A selection of Old Stories, Ways and Wisdom, from the Schools’ Collection, by John Creedon, Gill Books, €25.
One of the most popular Irish traditions on Halloween is 'Snap Apple' or 'Bobbing for Apples'.
Snap apple is when an apple is suspended from a piece of string and children are blindfolded with their arms behind their backs. The first child to get a decent bit of the apple gets a prize. Bobbing for apples is when some apples are dropped into a basin of water and the children have to go in head first and try to get a bite. The apples are associated with love and fertility. It is said that whoever gets the first bite will be first to marry. It was also thought that if the girls put the apple they bit, while bobbing, under their pillow that night, they would dream of their future lover….
All that young lovers’ excitement is captured in this joyful celebration, bursting with animation and fun, which was painted by one of Ireland’s finest artists, Daniel Maclise (1806 - 1870 ), after he attended a Halloween party in Blarney in 1832.
This was romantic Ireland in pre-famine times when much of the peasantry enjoyed some comfort and wealth. It was an exciting time as the great Daniel O’Connell achieved a masterful victory allowing Catholics to become members of Parliament, bringing to an end one of the severest restrictions of the old Penal Laws. Home Rule was his next objective, and although it was not achieved in his lifetime, the people were behind him. (Note the lady sitting on the left with a Daniel O’Connell scarf on her shoulders ).
Daniel Maclise was born in Cork to a family of Scottish descent, and achieved great fame in his lifetime. He contributed to Fraser’s magazine, a popular literary journal, published in London, and illustrated works by Milton, Tennyson, and Charles Dickens. He is best remembered for his monumental history paintings, The Death of Nelson, and the great frescos and oil works as part of the House of Lords commission.
This wonderful painting, was accompanied by the following poem in the catalogue when it was first exhibited:
“There Peggy was dancing with Dan While Maureen the lead was melting, To prove how their fortunes ran With the Cards could Nancy dealt in; There was Kate, and her sweet-heart Will, In nuts their true-love burning, And poor Norah, though smiling still She'd missed the snap-apple turning." (On the Festival of Hallow Eve, 1833 )
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