Oiche Samhain, 1970’s Cheekpoint

As a child, Halloween was a lot simpler.  There again in the early 1970’s with one TV channel (RTE 1), the ability of advertisers or foreign TV shows to influence our daily lives was much less than today.  Although they are very different countries between then and now, perhaps the most striking change is in how we celebrate Oiche Samhain.

Oiche Samhain derives from the old Irish word for end of summer, marking the move from light into the darkness of winter.  It also marked the end of the harvest.  The name Halloween is of Scottish origin, a shortening of the term All Hallows Evening – Hallows relating to saints – the evening before all saints day on Nov 1st.  As children we were told that on Oiche Samhain the souls of the dead came out to visit. We should dress up and cover our faces when going out so as to confuse them and avoid capture.

The first sign of Halloween then was not an add on TV but the making of masks in the week before it in Faithlegg NS, as part of our arts and crafts activities.  Corn flakes boxes would have been the primary source of cardboard.  The process was simple.  The scholar made out their design on the inside of the cereal box, cut out the eyes and coloured the mask to their own preferences.  The more artistic might add horns or pointy ears, and a piece of elastic or string finished the piece so that it would hang in front of you face.  If memory serves it would take the whole week and as we went home for the midterm break, the mask would be worn home.

On Halloween night the mask along with an old coat or a big sack would be thrown over us and we went out to the bonfire.  I don’t recall going Trick or Treating as it would be known now, though I do remember going to a few houses on occasion. You would knock on the door and would be expected to entertain with a song generally.  In those times you got an apple and some nuts…No sweets, no money, no crisps, no drinks!  Given that we had loads of windfall apples at home and bags of nuts, getting more hadn’t a great appeal.

Home was always busy on Halloween.  Mind you houses weren’t decked out in the way we decorate for the event now.  The day passed slowly as a child, as you had to wait for dark for the festivities to begin.  Barmbrack would be eaten, my mother hadn’t always the time to be baking and she sometimes got a brack from Portlaw bakeries who delivered to my aunt Ellen’s shop in the village. The brack would have a coin, a stick and a ring.  I always wanted the coin needless to say.  My father would make up a snap apple with two pieces of timber crossed over with pointed ends with apples pushed on.  It was suspended by string and it was a difficult balancing act to get right.  We then stood with hands behind our backs and tried to catch an apple in our mouth, always mindful of not biting on others spit-filled fruit.

Another activity was the money in a water filled basin.  Again hands behind your back you had to submerge your head into the water and try get the coin off the bottom of the basin.  Generally impossible, but given how scarce money was, worth almost drowning yourself .  Of course there were also ghost stories and my father could always be relied upon to scare half the avenue with ghoulish tales, like the one I related last year about the Banshee at Coolbunnia.

I not sure when pumpkins became popular but I can remember trying to carve out a turnip on occasion and the pain in our hands from the time it took.  Apparently when the Irish emigrated to America the tradition of carving a turnip went with them.  However, it was replaced when the local pumpkin proved to be much easier to hollow out and carve.  The turnip below certainly looks more malevolent.

Carved Pumpkin
accessed from: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/asenseofplace/2013/10/oiche-na-sprideanna-approaches/

The big part of the night of course was the fire.  In those days the bonfire happened in the Knock behind the Mount Avenue council houses and so we could wait until we saw the night sky light up before we went over, particularly if it was raining.  The fire was magical and we danced round it as children, not realising we were celebrating and re-enacting an ancient tradition.

Next morning was All Souls, a holy day of obligation, and an important festival to mark also.  Our mother would be up earlier than usual to clean clothes and have us all scrubbed clean of smoke before we headed to mass.

All told it was a much more simpler time.  Very different from the commercial affair that marks the night now.  But it’s interesting to note, than although commercialised and much changes, it’s still a ancient Celtic festival to which we have a deep connection and hopefully continues to be part of out traditions.

This piece this morning is an edited and updated piece I first published on Oiche Samhain 2014.

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