Returning to Halloween's Roots

Halloween has become a global event – from China to South America, dressing up in ghoulish costumes and celebrating the darker side of life is now a traditional activity at the end of October. But trace the festival back to its roots, and you'll be brought to Ireland’s Ancient East where the festival of Samhain was first celebrated over 2,000 years ago.
Actors dressed as characters on the stairs of Loftus Hall
Image of Samhain by Tumblr artist Pablo Mayer
Left: A chilling performance at Loftus Hall | Right: Image of Samhain by Tumblr artist Pablo Mayer

The Festival of Samhain

In Celtic Ireland, the feast of Samhain (31st of October) represented the dividing line between the year's two halves – the lighter half (summer) and darker half (winter). This threshold was a time when the boundary between this world and the other was at its thinnest, with spirits and demons easily able to pass between the two.

People wore costumes to blend in with these otherworldly creatures and ward off evil – the origins of today's spooky dress. At Samhain, the Lord of the Underworld (Donn in Celtic mythology) was no longer under the control of the sun god and had the power to walk among us; with him walked all manner of demons, spirits, and dwellers of the underworld.

Bonfires played a large part of the festivities, fire symbolising man’s power to control his own destiny in the face of nature’s chaos. The bones from slaughtered livestock were tossed into the flames and household fires were extinguished and lit again from the bonfires. Even the American tradition of carving pumpkins comes from the Irish practice of carving devilish faces in turnips and hanging them aloft – as the Celts had done with the heads of their enemies in times of war.
An aerial view of the Hill of Tara
The Mound of the Hostages passage grave at the Hill of Tara
Left: An aerial view of the Hill of Tara | Right: The Mound of the Hostages passage grave at the Hill of Tara

Hill of Tara

Two hills in Meath's Boyne Valley in particular are associated with the festival of Samhain; Tlachtga (the Hill of Ward) and the Hill of Tara. Where Tlachtga was the scene of the Great Festival of Fires during Samhain, the Hill of Tara (some 12 miles away) would wait until Tlachtga's fires were alight before kindling their own. The flames were a signal of reassurance to the farmers of the Boyne Valley, a reminder that the darkness of winter would be overcome and the sun would return.

The Mound of the Hostages (Dumha na nGiall) is an ancient passage tomb located on the Hill of Tara. Also associated with the festival of Samhain, it keeps time-honoured tradition alive to this day – each year, its burial chamber is aligned with the sunrise on 31 October, when the sun’s rays illuminate the back of the chamber.

Spooky Púca Festival character
Loftus Hall
A "ghost" in Loftus Hall
Left: Shape-shifting creatures come out to play | Middle: Loftus Hall | Right: A 'ghost' in Loftus Hall

Experience Halloween in the present day

Now that you know the origins of Halloween in Ireland, how (and where) can you celebrate it today?

Púca Festival

It is said that you may well encounter a púca (Irish for 'spirit' or 'ghost') at Samhain. Bringers both of good and bad fortune, they could present either a help or a hindrance. Shape-changers, the creatures could appear in the guise of horses, goats, cats, dogs, and hares: or they may also take a human form, which includes various animal features, such as ears or a tail.

Bringing the mischevious spirit of the púca into the modern day, Púca Festival celebrates Halloween's ancient traditions with music, food and spectacle at a time when light turns to dark and the veil between realities draws thin. Watch this space for details of the 2020 event which is sure to include feasting, fun and something for everyone.

Loftus Hall

Standing solitary and exposed to the elements on the Hook Peninsula, the imposing Loftus Hall has a sinister presence when seen from a distance – it only grows more intense as you approach on the long driveway from the road. At the point where the Three Sisters (the Nore, the Suir and the Barrow Rivers) enter the sea, Loftus Hall has for centuries dominated the landscape. The house has a character all of its own and its storied and eventful history is tied up with tales of the supernatural.

Loftus Hall at night

Loftus Hall, Co. Wexford

Loftus Hall, Co. Wexford
Supposedly haunted by the ghost of Lady Anne Loftus, the mansion is said to have been visited by the devil himself. A uniquely spooky place (that's also beautiful and haunting), Loftus Hall is in its element at Halloween, when adults and children from all over the world come in search of spooky tales and paranormal activity.
The Library at Kinnitty Castle
Evening time at Kinnitty Castle
Left: The Library at Kinnitty Castle | Right: Evening time at Kinnitty Castle

Kinnitty Castle

Known as one of Ireland’s most haunted castles, Kinnitty Castle in Offaly was built in 1209. Originally a home to druids and bards, it was burned to the ground by Republicans in 1922, then rebuilt to its current state in 1928. Today it operates as a hotel, though the high cross and abbey wall of the original structure remain – many of the rooms are said to be haunted.

The Geraldine and Elizabeth Rooms routinely leave visitors spooked, but the castle’s most famous ghost is the Monk of Kinnitty, Hugh. This (mostly) benign spirit has been spotted by both staff and visitors – Hugh communicates with one particular member of staff, and sometimes predicts future events.

Charleville Castle

Charleville Castle in Tullamore, Offaly, is bursting with strange tales – one revolves around Harriet, the young daughter of the third Earl of Charleville, who died tragically in 1861 after sliding down the main balustrade and losing her grip. Her ghost is still reportedly seen and felt on the stairs, and some say that at night, the screams and laughter of a young girl can be heard.

Harriet's not alone – the first Earl of Charleville has also remained to walk the tower in a state of constant vigilance. Tour Charleville on a Mysterious Holidays tour or plan your own visit; the Castle is open daily with tours lasting up to one hour.
Tower of Leap Castle
Interiors at Leap Castle
Left: The Tower of Leap Castle | Right: The impressive interiors of Leap Castle

​Leap Castle

Another of Ireland’s famously haunted houses, Leap Castle in Tipperary is said to be occupied by a series of ghosts and spectres. The most terrifying is a small hunched creature, accompanied by the stench of rotting flesh whenever he appears. Other sightings have glimpsed a burly man pushing a barrel up a flight of stairs only for it to fall, while in the Murder Hole Room, one unlucky resident felt the grasp of a cold hand on their wrist – then heard an anguished groan, and the sound of a body hitting the floor.

Built in 1250 A.D as the main stronghold of the O'Carrolls, Leap was erected on a  commanding site facing the Great Pass (through the Slieve Bloom Mountains) to the province of Munster. It has a massive tower and walls nine feet thick. One of Ireland's spookiest landmarks, Leap Castle is open to brave visitors on request.

Group taking selfies outside Wicklow Gaol
One of the actors at Wicklow Gaol
Visitors playing with the stocks at Wicklow Gaol
Left: Group taking selfies outside Wicklow Gaol | Middle: One of the actors at Wicklow Gaol | Right: Visitors playing with the stocks at Wicklow Gaol

Wicklow Gaol

For centuries, Wicklow Gaol housed prisoners in the most atrocious conditions. Often subjected to torture before their execution, sometimes let to languish in squalor for years before their demise due to malnutrition or disease, human suffering was part of the very fabric of the building.

During the Rebellion of 1798, rebels used guerrilla tactics to attack British garrisons in the Wicklow Mountains. As the rebellion foundered and the rebel forces grew weak and splintered, many ended up in Wicklow Gaol where they were tortured for information before their executions.

Today, interactive tours of Wicklow Gaol take in the building’s colourful history, as a microcosm of the story of Wicklow and of Ireland itself. The spooky atmosphere creates a spine-tingling backdrop to the performances of convincing actors – take a night tour if you dare

Tombs in St Canices Cathedral
A walking tour of Kilkenny
Left: Tombs in St Canices Cathedral | Right: A walking tour of Kilkenny

Kilkenny Ghost Tours

On the banks of the wide and rushing dark waters of the River Nore, Kilkenny City, (the medieval capital of Ireland) with its cobbled streets, imposing castle, ruined city walls and eerie atmosphere is the perfect place for a haunting ghost tour.

One of Ireland’s most dynamic and vibrant cities, it's also steeped in history and tales of the paranormal. The Kilkenny Ghost Tour is a brilliant way to discover both the old and the new in a way the whole family will love.

Halloween is a magical time in Ireland’s Ancient East today, as it was in ancient pre-Christian Ireland. The Celts told stories of gods and heroes battling for supremacy, while today we tell stories of ghosts and mysterious happenings. We delight in the spooky, mysterious and frightening, as we explore the ruined castles and great houses of Ireland’s Ancient East, all with chilling tales to share.


Recommended for you

Check out more storiesfestivals and recommended things to do in Ireland’s Ancient East.