The Story of Samhain - the ancient Irish origin of Halloween

The Story of Samhain - the ancient Irish origin of Halloween

by Cliffs of Moher on Monday, 25 October 2010 at 09:25

Long before the Americans invented Halloween the Irish were celebrating Samhain a great druidic festival that marked the boundary between our world and the spirit world.

Samhain - a celtic festival

In druidic times Samhain marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new year. The Celtic New Year’s Eve was a mysterious moment which belonged neither to the past nor the present. Samhain was considered the third and last harvest of the growing year. Fruit and nuts were the last gifts of nature to be gathered and the apple in particular was the symbol of this harvest.

Traditionally great bonfires were lit at Samhain upon which in druidic times may have been the site of human sacrifices to ensure that the winters reign was not unending.

FEILE NA MARBH - the dead walk abroad

At Samhain the spirits of the dead sought the warmth of the fireside and communion with their living kin. This time was also known as Féile na Marbh (the Feast of the Dead). As the veil between worlds thinned, all manner of spirits walked abroad at Samhain, including those of loved ones passed on. An empty chair by the fire was often left free along with a candle in the window to guide the ghosts home for comfort and seek their blessing for the coming year. In time the candle was placed inside a turnip lantern upon which a demon’s face was carved to scare off unfriendly spirits.

The tradition of wearing of costumes and masks at Samhain developed to deceive these same unfriendly spirits lest they recognised you and called you to the Otherworld before your time. Nervous living folk would attempt to appease the wandering spirit with gifts of fruit and nuts, which may be the origin of the ubiquitous treat or treating.


Peel an apple to predict a spouse. Samhain was also a time for divination and apples were predominant among the tools used to tell the future. Bobbing for apples or snapapple was used as a race among unmarried contestants – the winner who took the first bite of the apple was destined to be the first to wed, alternatively the winner was destined for good luck in the coming year. An unmarried girl would attempt to peel an apple in one long strip and cast the peel over her shoulder. The peel would reveal the initial of her future husband. Before the stroke of midnight a person would sit in a room in front of a mirror lit by only one candle and cut an apple into nine pieces. With their back to the mirror they would ask the question they wanted answered and eat eight of the apple pieces. The ninth would be thrown over their left shoulder. Then they would turn and look over the same shoulder into the mirror where they would see a symbol or image that would answer their question.


A fruit loaf called barm brack was baked at Samhain with tokens wrapped in greaseproof paper. If you found a token in your slice of barm brack this also foretold your future. The type of tokens varied by family but common examples were:

  • A ring – marriage within the year

  • A silver coin – riches

  • A rag or pea – poverty

  • A stick – an unhappy marriage

Barm Brack = fortune telling food.In some areas Colcannon, a dish of mashed potatoes, cabbage with either ham or bacon, was cooked with similar tokens placed into the dish.


Modern Halloween

With the coming of Christianity to Ireland in the 7th century Pope Boniface IV introduced All Saints Day, a time to honour saints and martyrs, to replace the pagan festival of the dead. It was originally celebrated on May 13th but in 834 Pope Gregory III moved All Saint’s Day to 1st November and it became the opportunity to remember all Saints who had died and all of the dead in the Christian community. October 31st became All Hallows Eve (or Hallow e’en)

Yes, I can, but that is from a bio mill where they make their own flour. I asked, they looked online, found the quality of malting barley to grind last autumn and said they will make more if they find the barley again. I haven't been there this year so no idea, but when I'm a bit more on physical form I shall. The alternative is probably to add some rye (seigle) or perhaps buckwheat (saracen) although that is not so good, to darken the dough when it bakes.

By the way, Scots dubh barm brack is often called 'black bun' and it is considerably darker than the Irish one.

All Hallows Evening is the old English name. Hallows are the spirits or ghosts of the departed. The eve of All Saints. It was in use long before 1492. So those students know where to stuff their pumpkins!

Beautifully put - Blessed Samhain

celeste - my hero of the day, dubh barm brack is one of the Scots recipes I lost. About the same except that I think I need brown barley flour to get it properly dubh...

Can't believe a year has passed since I posted this!

Does anybody have a recipe for Barm Brack? I would love to try it!

Here in Brittany they are truly Celtic and celebrate the change. Yesterday (Monday) Vannes had a full afternoon and evening celebration of music and dance to celebrate the Pagan festival.

I would love some barm brack and to be part of samhain

Barm Brack and Kerrygold butter. mmmm! When I was small, my mum used to bake the barm brack, and I remember being given the job of wrapping up a ring and a coin in greaseproof paper, to go into the mixture. And roasting chestnuts.

Oh, I nearly forgot. I am not the author of this piece but thought it was interesting.