Ireland’s Samhain

Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland was published in 1887. In it, Lady Wilde lets us look into the minds of the Irish peasantry of the time. She did this by interviewing the elders of a dying faith now referred to as the “fairy religion,” or sometimes simply as witchcraft. Sections of the book have not always been considered authoritative according to some sources, such as

This should be taken in context, however. In the preface, Lady Wilde separates herself from the individuals whose stories she’s about to share. She explains the historical and cultural importance of the tales themselves. Wilde then reminds the reader that this might have been the last chance for anyone to record the stories from the dying generation before they would be lost forever. She also offers other reasons for being interested in the pagan subject as well, including a love for anything Irish. Finally, she concludes her apologetic preface by reminding the reader that she’s a woman.

Throughout the text, Lady Wilde will occasionally refer to the practices being described as “evil” or suddenly make a few unsolicited warnings on behalf of Christianity. At the time this book was published, a woman such as Francesca Wilde would have felt the need to choose her words carefully for many reasons. These were dangerous times and she was an educated Irishwoman. In 1887, the English were still using these same stated Irish folk beliefs as proof to the world that the Irish were incapable of governing themselves. 1895 – eight years later after the book was published – is often said to be the year when the last witch burning in Ireland occurred. By that time, however, Lady Wilde had left this world penniless and heartbroken.

Lady Francesca Wilde was buried without a headstone in common ground. She had been a woman’s right activist and a supporter of the Irish Nationalist movement. In 1999, over a hundred years later, The Oscar Wilde Society erected a Celtic Cross in the Kensal Green Cemetery to commemorate her life.

Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland is a treasure trove of information. It has a dark side, however. Some people find the animal sacrifice and torture in the book excessively cruel. I agree. Others take the book literally and keep it close to them as a type of secret bible.

So without further ado, here are the common folk’s thoughts on Ireland’s Samhain – modern day Hallowe’en – from 125 years ago…

Ireland's Samhain

Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. 1887

“The dead walk on November Eve.”

In Clare, Ireland’s Samhain tales are shared by the peasants who gather “round the fire on the awful festival of Samhain, or November Eve, when the dead walk, and the spirits of earth and air have power over mortals, whether for good or evil.”

“The great feast of Bel, or the Sun, took place on May Eve and that of Samhain, or the Moon, on November Eve; when libations were poured out to appease the evil spirits, and also the spirits of the dead, who come out of their graves on that night to visit their ancient homes.”

“The peasants in Ireland, wishing you good luck, say in Irish, ‘The blessing of Bel, and the blessing of Samhain, be with you,’ that is, of the sun and of the moon.”

“These were the great festivals of the Druids, when all domestic fires were extinguished, in order to be re-lit by the sacred fire taken from the temples, for it was deemed sacrilege to have any fires kindled except from the holy altar flame.”

“The ancient Irish divided the year into summer and winter Samrath and Gheimrath; the former beginning in May, the latter in November, called also Sam-fuim (summer end). At this season, when the sun dies, the powers of darkness exercise great and evil influence over all things. The witch-women say they can then ride at night through the air with Diana of the Ephesians, and Herodias, and others leagued with the devil: and change men to beasts; and ride with the dead and cover leagues of ground on swift spirit-horses. Also on November Eve, by certain incantations, the dead can be made to appear and answer questions.”

“Divination by fire, by earth, and by water, is also largely practiced; but, as an ancient writer has observed, ‘All such divinations are accursed, for they are worked by the power of the fallen angels, who give knowledge only through malice, and to bring evil on the questioner.”

“All the spells worked on November Eve are performed in the name of the devil, who is then forced to reveal the future fate of the questioner. The most usual spell is to wash a garment in a running brook, then hang it on a thorn-bush, and wait to see the apparition of the lover, who will come to turn it. But the tricks played on this night by young persons on each other have often most disastrous consequences. One young girl fell dead with fright when an apparition really came and turned the garment she had hung on the bush. And a lady narrates that on the 1st of November her servant rushed into the room and fainted on the floor. On recovering, she said that she had played a trick that night in the name of the devil before the looking-glass; but what she had seen she dared not speak of, though the remembrance of it would never leave her brain, and she knew the shock would kill her. They tried to laugh her out of her fears, but the next night she was found quite dead, with her features horribly contorted, lying on the floor before the looking-glass, which was shivered to pieces.”

“Another spell is the building of the house, Twelve couples are taken, each being made of two holly twigs tied together with a hempen thread; these are all named and stuck round in a circle in the clay. A live coal is then placed in the center, and whichever couple catches fire first will assuredly be married. Then the future husband is invoked in the name of the Evil One to appear and quench the flame. On one occasion a dead man in his shroud answered the call, and silently drew away the girl from the rest of the party. The fright turned her brain, and she never recovered her reason afterwards. The horror of that apparition haunted her forever, especially as on November Eve it is believed firmly that the dead really leave their graves and have power to appear amongst the living.”

“Food should be left out on November Eve for the dead, who are then wandering

Ireland's Samhain
Traditional Turnip Irish Jack-o’-lantern early 20th CE.

about. If the food disappears, it is a sign that the spirits have taken it, for no mortal would dare to touch or eat of the food so left.”

“Never turn your head to look if you fancy you hear footsteps behind you on that night; for the dead are walking then, and their glance would kill.”

“November is the month when spirits have most power over all things.”

“In November a distaff is placed under the head of a young man at night to make him dream of the girl he is destined to marry.”

“It is especially dangerous to be out late on the last night of November for it is the closing scene of the revels the last night when the dead have leave to dance on the hill with the fairies, and after that they must all go back to their graves and lie in the chill, cold earth, without music or wine till the next November comes round, when they all spring up again in their shrouds and rush out into the moonlight with mad laughter.”

Snap-Apple Night by Daniel Maclise (1832). Depicts a Halloween party in Blarney, Ireland
Snap-Apple Night by Daniel Maclise (1832). Depicts a Halloween party in Blarney, Ireland

* Top image by Larisha Koshkina taken from

* Hallowe’en Greeting Card. 1904.

 * Museum of Country Life, Ireland. Photo by Rannṗáirtí Anaiṫnid.

Author: Shanon Sinn

The Spirit of Vancouver Island. Nature Beings, Shapeshifters, Ghosts & Ancestor Spirits. The Earth is Sacred.

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