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Wake Forest
University Press

Wake Forest University Press

Dedicated to Irish Poetry

Wake: Up to Poetry

"The act of poetry is a rebel act."

The Irish Origins of Halloween: Five Fun Facts about Samhain

It is Hallowe’en. Turnip Head
Will soon be given his face,
A slit, two triangles, a hole.
His brains litter the table top.
A candle stub will be his soul.

“Hallowe’en” by Michael Longley

1. Halloween’s oldest roots are in an ancient Irish holiday called Samhain (pronounced sah-win)! Samhain—usually translated “summer’s end”—was in part a harvest festival when Celtic tribes held assemblies, and rulers and warriors conferred and made laws.

2. Samhain was considered a kind of New Year, marking the end of summer and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year characterized by death. Hearth fires were ceremonially extinguished and relit from a sacred bonfire after the celebration was over to help protect families during the coming winter.

3. The Irish believed that during this transitional time of year, the lines between the worlds of the living and the dead thinned, and ghosts of the dead returned to earth. During this time humans were also more susceptible to supernatural influence, not only ghosts, but also fairies, banshees, ghouls, and other malevolent or mischievous spirits.

4. As protection from supernatural mischief, the Irish lit bonfires, wore animal skins and masks to disguise themselves from spirits who might wish them ill, and left out food to appease spirits of ancestors and distract less savory guests.

5. Halloween is still widely celebrated in Ireland and the last Monday in October is even an official bank holiday. Certain older traditions have held on in Ireland, even though they’ve evolved elsewhere. Most notably are the carved turnip heads which are distinctly more creepy than their American counterpart, the Jack-O-Lantern.


Sing a song
for the mistress
of the bones

the player
on the black keys
the darker harmonies

light jig
of shoe buckles
on a coffin lid

from “Samhain” by John Montague


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