Halloween, then & now by Michael O’Callaghan



Gorey was a real spooky but lovely place for Halloween because the business community and the local authority made a supreme effort in decorating premises and open spaces around town.
The fret saw people were busily cutting out pumpkins and witches and these adorned poles and flower display areas around town. Every entrance to Gorey certainly left you know that Gorey was a special place to be for Halloween with Halloween images abounding. It was also sheer pleasure to view all the window displays and to get into the spirit of Halloween around town.
Gorey should also be a safer place with all the witches with their brooms strategically placed around town, emblazoned with the letters WCCG denoting Wexford County Council and Gorey. They would be a match for any other-worldly aliens who might have intentions of invading us. I was wondering if there is some special message in having two fully dressed up scary hags strategically placed outside bookies shops and pubs. Maybe its for an omen of good luck for punters to keep bad luck at bay.
When I walked round town I could not but reminisce about my own childhood experiences in Kerry many years ago.
I remember in school we were reminded to pray for all the saints that had no special day assigned to them on the calendar. The church had set November 1st aside as a special day for this remembrance and they called it All Hallows Day with the day before that called All Hallows Eve or Halloween. November 2nd is called All Souls Day .We really prayed for these saints and visited the church. This was very much part of our formative years.
My father and uncle told us it was a pagan festival from Celtic Ireland. Samhain was the division of the year between summer and winter when the other world and ours were closest and it was the time when the living and dead were closest. Druids dressed up as spirits to avoid being carried away during the night in case they met spirits.
This is where all this dressing up at Halloween comes from with children and adults dressing up in scary costumes.
When I came to the east coast in 1967 I was amazed at this dressing up tradition when everyone dressed up and went out on the town with children doing Trick or Treat. I had never experienced such a massive Halloween community event during my childhood in Kerry.
The big event there was the celebration at home with the barmbrack taking centre stage. Barry’s Bakery did a huge trade in these. They were rich curney loaves made with the fruit soaked in barm, the left over from fermenting beer and ale giving it that rich taste. There is probably a newer recipe nowadays. Each brack contained a rag, a coin, and a ring or a pea. If you got the coin, you were in for a rich year ahead. The rag was an omen of a poor year ahead while the ring designated love or happiness and the pea meant that you would not get married that year. It was all good fun. My mother was always so careful when cutting the brack to warn us about checking each piece carefully.
My father used cut out a turnip and placed a candle in it. This was to remember the light given to Stingy Jack by the devil to guide him around in the darkness because he would not be allowed into heaven or hell after he died because he tricked the devil, and he was not in favour with the good lord above either. At least that is what I told the children every Halloween during my teaching years. The Jack o’ Lantern tradition is also mixed up in this area. The Irish brought this tradition with them when they emigrated in their millions to the USA during famine years, I believe, but because the USA is more pumpkin than turnip country the pumpkin took over from the turnip. The carving of the pumpkin was also very much part of American Halloween and Thanksgiving Festival with pumpkin pie and soup and whatever else you can think of.
Now as I said at the outset, we have pumpkins everywhere and ne’er turnip in sight.
In my youth we enjoyed snap apple at home, and this was great fun also. An apple was tied on the door jamb with a string, and we had to try and slow it down and bite it. It was such a hygienic game, I don’t think.
My uncle would arrive every Halloween with his sack of lovely eating and cooking apples. He told us that in times past apples were offered as sacrifice to the gods in thanksgiving for a good harvest. He got a big basin, filled it with water and put apples in. Our challenge was to dunk in and get out an apple by biting into it while our hands were tied behind our backs.
He also placed some coins which naturally fell to the bottom of the basin so there was quite a lot of water splashed about in our efforts to get the dosh, but it was all good innocent fun. Could you imagine doing that now with covid and sanitiser. No thank you very much.
My father always grew Kale or curly cabbage and was forever hoping for a blast of frost pre-Halloween so that the cabbage would be ready for the colcannon. This was a special favourite meal. The potatoes were taken from the pit and the fresh onions were brought in from the shed and my grandmother Curran always sent in the proper home-made salted country butter to add to the mash. The eventual colcannon meal was scrumptious. I still love colcannon.

Then there were the ghost stories when my father would emerge with a white sheet thrown over him and with the light down told us exaggerated stories of the banshee with a bit of wailing thrown in which scared the living wits out of us.
Nowadays things seem to have changed with the sweet companies producing millions of small bars and sweets to fill the bags of the Trick Or treaters. We now have Halloween lights and baubles to equal Christmas.
Nuts come with an allergy warning and the householders now must put on their masks before they get to the door. They re-enter the house and must sanitise themselves.
It is all a very sanitised version of The Halloween of my youth but that’s Covid and progress.
We look forward to healthier less restricted Covid free days ahead.
Thank you, Gorey, for making this great effort for Halloween. I certainly appreciated and enjoyed it.
Mick O Callaghan