With Halloween upon us it is worth remembering that it derives its origins from the ancient Celtic quarter feast of Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest (Deireadh Fomhair) and the beginning of winter. In fact the festival of Samhain marked the end of the ‘bright half’ of the year and the beginning of the ‘dark half’ of the year (which ran until Bealtaine, about 1st of May).
Modern spoilsport meteorologists will tell you that ‘winter’ properly begins on 21st December, the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere. Ancient Samhain was marked with a harvest feast and customs of divination – attempting to divine the future, a feature we still find in the ring, stick, pea and rag in the barm brack and in the whole snap apple custom celebrated in Daniel Maclise’s wonderful ‘Snap Apple Night in Blarney or All Hallows Eve,’ which he painted in 1833. The large painting depicts a Halloween entertainment held by Fr Mathew Horgan, the Parish Priest of Blarney and Whitechurch, in his barn on 31st October 1832, an event that Maclise attended with Thomas Crofton-Croker. All social classes were mixed together to enjoy the night’s revels. There’s nothing scary about Maclise’s depiction of a community coming together to enjoy themselves after the harvest had been gathered in. Samhain was celebrated as both a harvest festival with feasting from the (hopeful) abundance of the harvest…and a time of ghosts. It was a time when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was particularly thin and the ghosts of ancestors could visit the living, and even bring their living relatives back to the world of the dead with them! To avoid any unexpected encounters, the living donned disguises to prevent their dead relatives from bringing them to the underworld. Oddly enough, Mexico’s Day of the Dead occurs at the same time with visits to the graves of dead relatives. A potent mixture of ancient Aztec beliefs and the Christian All Saints and All Souls celebrations, it has eerie echoes of the Celtic Samhain.
There is no evidence that the early Roman church tried to suppress Samhain, simply because the festival was just unknown in Rome. Rome, however, observed a feast of the Holy Martyrs, or All Saints, on 13th May, while in Ireland the same feast was celebrated on 20th April. When Pope Gregory tII (pontificate 731-741) built an oratory in (Old) St Peter’s Basilica to house the relics of the martyrs, he moved the Feast of All Saints to 1st November. In the tradition of the Church, the feast began at sunset on 31st October, and the Pope suppressed the feast day of 13th May. The problem in Ireland was that 1st November coincided very closely with the festival of Samhain, which was already entrenched in Irish society and tradition, so the Samhain customs survived in Ireland on that day. However, following the English invasions, and the change of language in Ireland, Samhain soon became Halloween – the Eve of the Feast of All Saints.
How did we go from the sociable celebration of Halloween as depicted by Daniel Maclise to the modern association of Halloween with horror? How did it turn into ‘fright night’? The source is the United States and Hollywood – or rather American (and British) film and television programmes. If you don’t believe this, just ask ‘when did we begin to associate carved pumpkins with Halloween in Ireland’? When I was young we often picked up sugar beet discarded from passing trucks to carve into lanterns. They were, frankly, much more spooky than the colourful American pumpkins. Originally the lanterns were carved from turnips – the National Museum of Folk Life in Castlebar has a truly frightening example of such a lantern. One must wonder if the massive arrival of Irish emigrants fleeing the horrors of the Great Famine (1845-1850) brought their traditions with them and added in the horrors of the massive mortality during the famine.
The association of Halloween with witchcraft was yet another American association. It you visit the lovely old town of Salem, Massachusetts, at this time of the year you will discover that the town is filled with more witches than ever lived there in 1692-1693, when 25 people died during the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Here in Ireland we have three infamous witch trials to consider.
The earliest was the persecution of Alice Kyteler of Kilkenny by the English-born Franciscan bishop of Ossory, Richard Ledrede. In 1324 Ledreded declared that his diocese was a hotbed of witchcraft, centred about Alice Kyteler, according to the accusations of her step children. Alice had married the Kilkenny merchant William Outlaw in about 1280 and had a son, also called William. But Outlaw had died by about 1300. Her son William was declared an adult in 1303. In the meantime Alice had married the merchant Adam le Blund of Callan. In 1307 le Blund had quitclaimed his wealth and possessions to his stepson, William, cutting out his own children by a previous marriage. Soon after, Adam died and Alice married the Tipperary landowner Richard de Valle (Wall). Richard made a settlement that benefitted Alice’s son William, despite having a legitimate son of his own. When Richard died his son was sued by Alice for withholding her dower (widow’s portion). Alice had married for a fourth time to John le Poer, who died of a wasting disease.
Bishop Ledrede’s accusations against Alice were based on the animosity of her stepchildren and his dislike of financially successful women. Alice fled abroad but her maidservant, Petronilla, was tortured and burned at the stake. There was no evidence that Alice was ever a witch.
The next witch trial was that of Florence Newton of Youghal at the Cork Assizes in September 1661. The impoverished Newton had approached the house of John Pyne in Youghal to seek old bread to eat. Pyne’s maid, Mary Longdon, refused her even a scrap of food, and, despite Newton saying she bore Mary no ill will, the maid shortly afterward began to experience fits and trances. Various incidents suggested to the town elders that Mary was bewitched and during the trial, Longdon, went into fits in the presence of Newton. The fits only stopped when Newton was removed from the courtroom. Alas, we don’t know the final verdict but, given that the trial used the English witchcraft law of 1586 and the English attorney general Sir William Ashton was present, it is likely that the unfortunate Florence Newton was executed for witchcraft.
The last great witch trials in Ireland happened in 1711. The trials involved the obviously fake accusation against a number of women in Islandmagee, the peninsula in County Antrim that looks across to Scotland. And this is important, because Scotland is thought to have tortured and executed more ‘witches’ per capita of population than any other country in Europe between 1479 and 1727 – some 2,500 people in total, of whom only 15% were men. The trial of eight women took place in the nearby town of Carrickfergus. The women were accused of indulging in witchcraft against yet another servant girl, Mary Dunbar. The charges were patently false but, as at Salem two decades before, this was Presbyterian-Scots community under enormous religious, legal and economic pressure. The accused women were sentenced to the stocks and to be imprisoned for a year.
‘Witches’ were usually single women who appeared to be ‘unnatural’ to the men in the community and they had nothing to do with Halloween. Astonishingly the Church actually forbade the persecution of people for witchcraft in the early medieval period on the grounds that witches simply did not exist! This all changed in the period after 1100 and became rife by 1300, leading to the horrific witch-hunts between 1500 and 1700. The key to this was the publication in 1487 of Malleus Maleficarum by the inquisitor Henrich Kramer which proported to set out the means of indentifying and confirming the guild of ‘witches’ – much to the dismay of many German bishops who had banned his witch hunts. The book became the basis of all witch hunts from then even for the anti-Catholic reformers! Remember, Kramer was a Dominican friar! The horror of the sixteenth and seventeenth century witch hunts must have lingered long in the memory, to be revived as a scary story for Halloween.
Happy Halloween to everyone!