Join the Protest for Park Wardens for Galway city

Support for our campaign, to secure the establishment of a permanent Park Warden unit for Galway's public parks, is gaining increasing support amongst our elected city councillors, who will finally vote on this issue on Monday evening.
The public representatives who have responded positively to our demands are: Mayor Niall McNelis, Billy Cameron, Cathal Ó Conchúir, Michael Crowe, Ollie Crowe, Mike Cubbard, Frank Fahy, Mairead Farrell, Noel Larkin and Peter Keane.

But concerned citizens must help in the campaign to keep our public parks, including Terryland Forest Park and Merlin Woods, clean and safe by maintaining the pressure on Galway City Council to follow the example of many other Irish and European cities in establishing a full-time Park Warden unit.


Councillor Mark Lohan's original motion was an important first step and positive political response to our demands in reclaiming the public green spaces for the people of Galway, and in protecting these very important rare urban habitats for our precious but increasingly threatened native mammals, birds, insects, trees, flowers and other living things.
We want our public woods, wetlands, parks, meadows and waterways to be 'Carbon Sinks' to tackle Climate Change, Outdoor Classrooms for our schools, Outdoor Labs for our second and third level students, Outdoor Gyms for physical exercise enthusiasts, Nature Playgrounds for our children, Nature Trails for walkers, Zones of Tranquility and passive Leisure for people of all ages, Rural landscapes for revitalising nature-friendly farming, and Sanctuaries for our endangered native flora and fauna. 

So we are calling on concerned citizens to show their determination that such a policy is implemented by turning up in outside City Hall at 2.30pm on Monday. So once again we ask you to join us and to bring along your friends, neighbours and family members. Together We Can (as we done so many times before) Make a Difference!

Let's Make Scenes of Park Vandalism History- Join the Protest at 1.40pm Tomorrow (Mon) to Demand Park Wardens for Galway city's public parks

Bench in Terryland Forest Park that has lain broken & un-repaired for 2 years
Help keep our public parks including Terryland Forest Park and Merlin Woods clean and safe by maintaining the pressure on Galway City Council to follow the example of many other Irish and European cities in establishing a full-time Park Warden unit.
We were promised at last month's protest outside the council January meeting that the deferred motion from Councillor Mark Lohan, to set up a permanent on-the-ground parks staff crew, would be voted on at the next council meeting on Monday February 4th.
We thank Niall McNelis Mayor of Galway City for this commitment- he is someone that has long being an activist promoting a Clean Galway through his involvement in mass litter pickups and the Tidy Towns competition.
Getting the motion passed is a first step in reclaiming the public green spaces for the people of Galway, and in protecting these very important rare urban habitats for our precious but increasingly threatened native mammals, birds, insects, trees, flowers and other living things.
We want our public woods, wetlands, parks, meadows and waterways to be 'Carbon Sinks' to tackle Climate Change, Outdoor Classrooms for our schools, Outdoor Labs for our second and third level students, Outdoor Gyms for physical exercise enthusiasts, Nature Playgrounds for our children, Nature Trails for walkers, Zones of Tranquility and passive Leisure for people of all ages, Rural landscapes for revitalising nature-friendly farming, and Sanctuaries for our endangered native flora and fauna.
Many of our elected public representatives have already declared their support for a Park Wardens unit for Galway city including Mayor Niall McNelis, Billy Cameron, Cathal Ó ConchúirMike CubbardCllr Frank FahyMairéad Farrell and Michael Crowe. So in advance of tomorrow's we have declarations of solidarity from councillors of all political parties and from the independent councillor Mike Cubbard. That is great news! In advance of the meeting, we have lobbied all the other councilors on the issue.
But it is important that the people of Galway city show their determination that such a policy is implemented by turning up outside City Hall at 1.40pm on that day. Of course increased investment in infrastructure is also needed. But the establishment of a park wardens unit is an important first step.
So we ask you to join us and to bring along your friends, neighbours and family members. Together We Can (as we done so many times before) Make a Difference!
p.s. the  Shame!

Help a Community Organic Garden awaken after its Winter Sleep

As today is officially the first day of Spring, we are asking for people interested in the Great Outdoors and in growing their own healthy biodiversity-friendly food to come along at 10am tomorrow (Sat Feb 2nd) for a friendly chat, a tea/coffee/biscuit and to take part in the ongoing development of an neighbourhood organic garden.


The aim of the garden volunteers is to endeavour to make this green neighbourhood resource located in Terryland Forest Park a wonderful friendly outdoor venue where people can socialise, grow organic fruits and vegetables as well as to learn the traditional eco-skills from composting to pruning that our grandparents possessed. The garden will continue to develop as a social, health, learning and environmental hub for the neighbourhood of Castlegar and Ballinfoile and indeed for the whole of Galway.
The latest medical scientific research is showing the mental and physical health benefits to people of all ages that comes from spending time surrounded by plants and trees. It is what doctors are now referring to as the ‘Green Prescription’.
By working with others in amongst our fruit trees, vegetable plots and herbal beds as well as by participating in our educational courses, volunteers in our community garden will be encouraged to bring this knowledge back home so that they can grow tasty safe foods in their own gardens to be served on the kitchen plate for the enjoyment of the whole family.
Growing food organically enriches the soil, reduces our carbon footprint, does not pollute the environment, helps the local economy, reduces a household’s food bill and improves personal nutrition. Just as important a well-maintained organic garden is by nature a diverse place, filled not only with food crops, but flowers, birds, insects, bees, butterflies and birds. It is a sanctuary for wildlife at a time when 25% of Ireland’s native species are under threat.
So please visit our garden & forest this Saturday to view our garden/forest community and outdoor educational centre.

The Last Christmas Party (for 2018) with Galway’s Forgotten Heroes

Recently I was invited to attend the Christmas Party of the staff of the Eglinton Direct Provision Accommodation Centre.

What used to be referred too as Asylum Seekers’ Accommodation Centres have got a bad press for many years. This is perfectly understandable when one realises that family members of all ages can live in a single room in an old hotel/hostel building, often occupied by one hundred to two hundred people from many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, over a long period of time. There can be a loss of personal dignity and a feeling of being downgraded as a human being for the occupants of such a dwelling.  Quite a few of these adults and children have encountered war, death and persecution in their homelands and come to Ireland hoping to start a new and better life as quickly as possible.
Hence to find themselves living in such surroundings for a number of years can seriously impact on their wellbeing and on their relationships with others.
So it takes a very special type of person, that is endowed with a heightened awareness and sensitivity towards others, to work with people who may be fragile and vulnerable.
I can honestly say that the Eglinton staff have these qualities in abundance.
I started to work as a volunteer in this centre in 2004. Over the subsequent years, I have helped in setting up a well-equipped Computer Room, an onsite community organic garden, a residents’ committee, a library, a residents’ website and regular offsite recreational/educational activities for all ages.  I have also witnessed the establishment of a crèche, a games zone, the hosting of regular festive parties and excursions, and the active encouragement of involvement by bona fides external organisations and volunteers. None of these developments would have been possible without the generousity of spirit, the genuine sense of caring and concern displayed by the management and staff towards the residents who they treat as equals and indeed as friends.  It says everything when the Eglinton children refer to Anne, Carole and others on the front desk as ‘Auntie’.  For there is a genuine warmth and affection between most staff and residents that very few in the world outside would have ever thought possible in such surroundings.
In my professional capacity as a Science Education and Public Engagement Officer at NUI Galway, I have worked in many other Direct Provision Centres across Ireland. But I have never ever experienced the humanity displayed by the Eglinton staff who time and time again go over and above the call of duty in helping others.
So, as they at long last got to enjoy a late great Christmas Party, I was honoured to be with them in enjoying a night of food, drink and good cheer.
Finally, I join with the staff and residents in extending best wishes to the Eglinton general manager, the hardworking and benign Patrick McGovern, as we eagerly look forward to his return.

Join Monday Protest to demand Park Wardens for Galway city Parks

Public parks, woods and other green spaces are more and more recognised as essential to the health of people and to the wellbeing of the planet.
Sadly Galway city’s public parks are increasingly suffering from anti-social behaviour that is undermining all of the great work that has been undertaken over so many decades by volunteers of all ages. Issues such as litter, dumping, destruction of seating/tables and tree felling are undermining not only citizens’ enjoyment of our valuable green spaces but are also impacting negatively on wildlife species.
It is well past time that Galway city follows the centuries-old example of Dublin and Belfast in having dedicated full time park wardens. Such on-the-ground staff could regularly carry out essential maintenance, act as tour guides, dramatically decrease acts of vandalism and in the process restore public confidence and usage of a rich diverse range of meadows, forests, wetlands and parks that would be the envy of most other European cities.
 A motion from Councillor Mark Lohan in requesting such a full-time parks crew is on the agenda of the first meeting of Galway City Council in 2019, that starts at 2pm on next Monday (January 14th).
So we are asking all lovers of our urban green amenities to join us at 1.40pm outside the front door of City Hall and demand that all councillors support this critical motion that could make our parks and natural heritage areas as popular as St. Stephens’ Green or Phoenix Park in Dublin, Hampstead Heath in London or Central Park in New York.
Lets make a positive start to the New Year by having our publicly elected local politicians implement a policy that will positively transform our parks and natural heritage areas

Denizens of a Winter Wonderland: the Magical Hazel Tree.

I took this photo on the evening of St. Stephen's Day in Terryland Forest Park. It captures somewhat the mythical nature of the Hazel tree, with its catkins almost luminescent in the rising darkness.
The Hazel in Celtic mythology is associated with magic, wisdom and poetry. Its fruit- the hazel nut- was a great source of nourishment in ancient times and is still collected by local families in the autumn. Its wood was used for making furniture, fencing and wickerwork. In our community garden we have used it in conjunction with willow branches to make fences.
Druid wands were made from hazel. Because the tree grew near water, it also has strong connections with fertility. It was believed too that the source of Ireland's most scared rivers, Shannon and Boyne, were to be found at wells guarded by hazel trees whose nuts would impart great knowledge and magical prowess to those that eat them. Its twigs were used by diviners to locate water underground.

Keeping Alive best of Irish Xmas traditions

Cepta and myself have fond memories of our childhood Christmases and the stories that our parents told us of their own youthful days at this very special time of the year.  We did indeed experience many of the characteristics of today’s Christmas such as Santa Claus, a Christmas tree in the living room and special programmes on the TV station. Nevertheless it was then first and foremost a deeply religious festival of Christian thanksgiving which our parents expected us to respect and to observe.

In my father’s (& mother’s) time…
On winter evenings around the fireside, mom, dad and particularly my grandparents, would tell stories of their own harsh poverty-stricken Christmas in a rural Ireland before the era of plastic trees, glittering baubles, twinkling electric lights, expensive gifts and sumptuous festive dinners. In those bygone days they would get up early and gather branches from Holly (holy) trees in the hedgerows to decorate their homes. For them the thorns and red berries symbolised the bloodied crown of thorns of the crucified Jesus. But the sacredness of this native Irish tree goes back thousands of years earlier, when it was recognised as a protector of Nature, with its red berries providing a rare source of food to the birds in the depths of darkest winter, and a reminder too of the resurrection of life during the coming Spring.  Lots of families made their own wooden figures for Nativity scenes that were placed prominently in the kitchen and which was a microcosm of the larger crib in the local parish church (a custom introduced by Francis of Assisi during the European Middle Ages).
Morning mass, where they happily engaged with all the cousins and neighbours, was followed in the late afternoon by a family meal comprising exotic foodstuffs not consumed at any other time of the year. Before refrigeration, a key element was the Christmas pudding (kept in a recycled metal biscuit tin), comprising fruits that had been dried out and stored from the autumn harvest with a generous lashing of home distilled whiskey (poitín) even though my parents throughout their lives hardly ever drank alcohol (Dad was a lifelong ‘pioneer’).  As in the modern era, the main delicacy was poultry. But rather than the American-originated turkey, they usually had the luxury of enjoying one of their own geese. 
But in the lives of ordinary people, meat was then a rarity. It was only normally consumed on Sundays (the ‘Sunday roast’) and on important religious/seasonal festivals.
This celebratory meal was primarily a gathering for the extended family, when those bothers and sisters who had gone to work in Dublin or had emigrated to nearby Britain would, at least before they got married, try to travel home for the most important day in the Christian calendar.
As was the custom at the beginning of every mealtime in Irish Christian homes in times past, a prayer was recited in thanks for the food that was about to be served.
On Christmas night, a simple wax candle was lit and placed in the window. It represented the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ that guided the ‘wise men (possibly Zoroastrian magi from the land of or modern day Iraq or Iran), with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, to the livestock barn where the newborn baby lay.
In the days before rural electrification, it must have been an awe-inspiring sight for children to look across a darkened Irish countryside vibrating with small flickering candle-lights emanating from isolated farmers’ cottages. It was as if the heavenly night sky had become one with the Earth.

So in honour of our parents for this and all Christmases, our family (as with so many other families) continue to observe some of the best of the old Irish Christian traditions. We decorate the walls with holly, make a Star of Bethlehem backdrop for an internal Nativity scene, place candles on the windows and doorways with some family members attending the local church and then enjoying a festive meal together.
Whilst I have many disagreements with the Catholic Church stretching back to my teens, nevertheless I have always being an avid follower of the great inspirational progressive, radical, pacifist, non-sectarian, communal feminist figure known as Jesus Christ.
So to all my atheist, pagan, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Hindi friends may I wish you all a peaceful and joyful Christmas and New Year. 

Denizens of a Winter Wonderland: Velvet Shank mushroom

The Velvet Shank mushrooms are found through the Terryland Forest Park at this time of year. With their glistening slippery orange copper surface they bring a lovely magical beauty to a largely bare woodland in winter especially when surrounded by a carpet of lush green mosses.
But what is most striking and wonderful about such lifeforms is that they makes their homes and takes their nutrients from the stumps of dead trees and other deadwood.
In Nature, there is no such thing as 'waste'- everything is recycled and upcycled.
Humanity is out-of-sync with the rest of Nature where a 'circular (economy) system' is the foundation of all life.

The Urban Farmers of Christmas 2018 - our Message: “Is feidir linn!”

A dedicated volunteers of the Ballinfoile Mór Community Organic Garden in the Terryland Forest Park spent Saturday completing the green facility for a period of hibernation.
Whilst Spring is the season for the first signs of growth for much of the garden's vegetable and fruit species, and late autumn represents the end of their life cycles, we have noticed that some plant-life now remain active during the traditional winter period.
Sadly this is a sign of Global Warming that is impacting negatively on the whole interconnecting biosphere. With flowers blooming earlier in the year, pollinating insects and birds such as migratory swallows suffer as their life cycles become out-of-sync within their eco-systems. This is one of the reasons for the increasingly serious decline in the numbers of flora and fauna over the last few decades.
The same problem continues onto the winter which is suppose to be a time when soil needs to replenish and much of the wildlife world needs to sleep.
Still we urban gardeners extend the traditional Irish seasonal greeting of "Nollaig Shona agus Áthbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh" and look forward to working with like-minded people across Galway and beyond during 2019 in protecting the rest of Nature from the devastating influences of humanity caused by a relentless drive for a progress that is becoming a Road to Hell.
Remember though, that in spite of the serious local, national and global problems that we face, to be positive. For together we can and will make a difference. "Is feidir linn" (Irish = “Yes We Can!”).

My friend Chris Coughlan - The Legend and the Legacy.

Thanks Mayor Niall McNelis for making such a wonderful speech and unveiling a plaque at the Computer & Communications Museum NUI Galway in honour of my friend Dr. Chris Coughlan - The Legend and the Legacy., co-founder of this important technology heritage learning facility.
I was honoured on the night to follow the speech of the Mayor by saying a few words of my own on the legend that was Chris Coughlan.
He was truly a giant amongst men and has left a powerful beneficial legacy on so many fronts in Galway that will last for generations to come.
Chris was instrumental in establishing the TULCA Festival of Visual Arts, the Galway Technology Centre, WestBic, the Digital Entreprise Research Centre (DERI) NUI Galway as well as the computer museum that we co-founded along with Liam Ferrie (Celtic Rambler), Pat Moran, Frank McCurry and Tom Frawley. He was a director of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Galway, adjunct Professor of Business at NUI Galway, former President of the Galway Chamber of Commerce, former President of the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland and former chairperson of the Galway Civic Trust.
A man on a mission with a powerful vision of where Galway needed to be, Chris did not take fools gladly and was refreshingly honest, blunt and forthright in his views. He had a generosity of spirit that was unique and he served as an important mentor to so many people from the world of business to that of the arts. Chris also had a deep sense of social responsibility and secured for instance the provision of computer facilities to a number of educational establishments in disadvantaged communities over so many years. He and myself would agree to disagree on a number of political issues but that never got in the way of us seeing a common goal or aspiration that we worked towards for the good of society. Anyway he told me often that he looked on himself sometimes as a bit like me, “a good natured Bolshie” which pleased me no end! We shared a lot of other things in common too including early careers in our youth as managers of small computer stores! 

I am proud to have known Chris, to have worked with him, to have been inspired by him and to have called him a close friend.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam.

A Celebration of World Cultures at a Galway Christmas

The annual Christmas party at my workplace is unique and it is something that I love helping to coordinate. For it is a wonderful vibrant celebration of the cultures and ethnic traditions of the people that happily work together at our university institute.
The taste, quality and variety of traditional foods on offer are consistently top class. As always so many volunteers do so much cooking/baking to ensure that all attendees enjoy an array of exotic tasty sweets, cakes and deserts.

As well as the food there was live music, dance, videos and posters from across the globe.
This year we had exhibits from fourteen countries/regions (Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, France, Ireland, India, Mediterranean, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Poland, Portugal, Syria and samples of foods from Greece, Kurdistan, Lebanon and Slovenia).

Then there is the 'Greenscreen', the ‘Open Mike’, the ‘Giving Tree’ (gifts to local people in need), the Best/Worst Jumper Competition and a real live very jolly Santa (aka Niall O'Brolchain).
If only the rest of humanity got on as well as all the nations of the world at DSI/Insight NUI Galway! We must be what the United Nations aspires too and what governments need to emulate if the world is to work together to make a sustainable future for all forms of life.

Photo shows (clockwise the stands from Brazil, France, Ireland and Poland).
Nollaig Shona agus Áthbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh (Happy Christmas and a Happy New Year to all).

Council Neglect of Public Parks is harming City Schools, People’s Health and Biodiversity

We are asking all lovers of nature and of community to join volunteers at 10am on this Saturday Dec 8th from the Quincentenary Bridge entrance to take part in a significant cleanup in Terryland Forest Park that we hope will highlight the unacceptable increased levels of anti-social behaviour occurring there over the last few months particularly in terms of litter and therefore the critical need for Galway City Council to follow the lead of other cities in appointing full-time parks’ grounds staff.
Working with community volunteers and implementing an ‘Adopt a Patch’ scheme with local residents and businesses that we will launch next month, we feel that this new suggested policy change by City Hall could have a major positive impact on reclaiming the park for the people of Galway in order to fulfil its official designation as the “People’s Park” and the “Lungs of the City” as well  as a urban wildlife sanctuary.  Terryland has the potential to become a major green regional hub linking the Connemara Greenway over a new pedestrian bridge along the old railway pillars, to the Corrib waterways and to a large untapped walking/cycling ‘boreen’ network on the north and east sides of the city.

Sadly years of council neglect due to a shrinking budget from government and other factors is destroying our city’s green spaces particularly in relation to Terryland Forest Park, a green facility that its founders in 1996 had hoped would become the equivalent of the Phoenix Park of Galway.
A dedicated team of volunteers from all walks of life have done so much over the last few years to successfully develop this natural heritage zone as an Outdoor Classroom for local schools; an Outdoor Laboratory for third level science research; a major ecological corridor and sanctuary for wildlife that research has shown contains at least 350 species; and a landscape for revitalising rural heritage skills and organic farming. But sadly the absence of on-the-ground park wardens and maintenance staff has led to an epidemic of litter and a surge in vandalism that is transforming Terryland and other public parks into ‘No Go Zones’ for the public as well as negatively impacting on the park’s biodiversity.
Sadly the visitor is now greeted with carcasses of blackened burnt tree trunks on abandoned night-time campfires; the wanton destruction of picnic benches; paint-peeled park seating; mounds of alcohol bottles/cans lying beside outdoor exercise equipment; overflowing uncollected ugly council blackbags beside every seat which are ripped open with their contents covering woodlands and killing wildlife in the process; the detritus of heroin drug use in the form of used needles and tin foil scattered across pathways; gates and boundary fences rotting away; a Terryland river that is being choked to death by nitrates and many large empty display boards deprived of their lovingly researched and artistically drawn biodiversity information signage that have been inexplicably kept for years in cold storage by the council.  This sorry state of affairs is destroying the morale of many of those who have given thousands of hours free of charge since March 2000 to plant tens of thousands of trees, to develop a network of wildflower bee haven meadows, to carve Celtic art into large stones in order to form a unique heritage trail and to install multiple bat boxes. Many veteran volunteers of all ages have understandingly recently given up collecting rubbish monthly when they see no reciprocal council system in place to ensure regular litter picking and bench/fence/seating maintenance. 
This is a nightmare scenario to the visionaries drawn from council staff, politicians, state agencies, academia, local communities, schools and the environmental movement who came together in the 1990s to designate 180 acres of fields to develop a wonderful mosaic of parklands, farmland, wetlands, waterways, and woods that would serve the leisure needs of Galwegians of all ages as well as providing a ‘wildlife corridor’ linking the Corrib waterways to the farmlands of east Galway via the city.  Even then they understood the importance of easy access to natural land/waterscapes for people’s physical and mental health as well in benefiting children’s learning experiences through contact with Nature. Since then the importance of forestry in combating Climate Change,  maintaining soil fertility and structure as well as filtering toxic car emissions out of the atmosphere has being scientifically proven.
So we have written to Mayor McNelis, a great friend of the Terryland Forest Park, for his help in re-establishing the great sense of unity of purpose that existed when the park opened on a Sunday in March 2000 as c3,500 people turned up to plant an entire urban woodland in the heart of the city. We have asked him to organise a meeting of community activists with the CEO, officials, and councillors of Galway city council around our key demands of the reconvening of the park’s multi-sectoral steering committee which was promised last February by CEO Brendan McGrath; to ring-fence the €50,000 allocated in last year’s council budget towards developing a Management Plan  or Terryland park/river that was supposed to happen in 2018 and has not; to appoint a city Biodiversity Officer as is the case in Dublin; to consider building ‘green bridges’ to connect the different parts of the park separated by  roads; and finally to appoint full time wardens and operative staff for this and other parks. The latter is crucial if we are to restore public confidence in Terryland. Not having park ground staff is ludicrous. For instance St Stephen’s Green and Phoenix Park would degenerate into a dangerous wasteland within weeks if Dublin City Council withdrew staff from its grounds.   
In February, doctors, teachers, students, scientists, resident associations, urban farmers, environmentalists, state agency representatives, politicians, artists and others will come together to launch the campaign for Galway to become Ireland’s first ‘National Park City’. We earnestly wish City Hall to be part of this initiative. Hence we hope their actions on Terryland Forest Park over the next month will make the council worthy partners in this project.

Significant Irish Contributions to World Culture - No. 7641, Halloween

Halloween's Pagan Celtic Roots
Today Halloween is joyously celebrated by children across the Western world.
There is a popular misconception though that Halloween is a modern American invention. Not so. Though our American cousins have to be congratulated for making this very special festival a fantastic children-centric occasion nevertheless, as with so many other things that have brought great happiness and joy to humanity for millennia, its roots lay firmly in the culture of the Irish Celts!
(Photo- my son Dáire & 'friend'!)

Yet in the modern repackaging of this ancient pagan festival, many of the fine traditions that were once such an integral part of the festivities have disappeared. For instance our Celtic custom of placing human skulls with candles at entrances to domestic dwellings in order to ward off evil spirits has been replaced by lights in hollowed-out pumpkins! Likewise the visits of children dressed up in ghoulish and macabre fancy dress going door-to-door looking for gifts of sweets and fruits is a poor substitute for the former visits of the ghosts of our ancestors who used to drop in once a year on October 31st for a nice meal with their living relatives (we would prepare a place for them at the dinner table).
It was said too that live captives were placed in wicker cages above huge bonfires and burnt alive (as portrayed in the classic British 1970s cult film “The Wicker Man”). But such horror stories were originally spun by those nasty Romans when they were at war with the Celts. So it was probably nothing more than malicious enemy propaganda. After all, what do you take us Celts for? Barbarians?!!

As with so many other annual family festivals, Halloween has become so commercialised by 'Americanised' popular culture that its true origins and religious aspects have long since being forgotten.
So here is the true story of 'Féile na Marbh' (Festival of the Dead'):

Christianisation of 'Samhain'
Yet modern-day Americans were not the first people to re-brand the festival. In the middle ages the Catholic Church created the Christian festival of 'All Hallows Eve' or 'All Souls Day' when people were asked to remember and pray for their dead family members.
This event was superimposed onto the ancient pagan Celtic festival of 'Samhain' which marked the end of the summer season characterised by heat & light and the coming of the dark cold barren winter months.

Celtic Festivals
Typical of many agricultural societies, the Celts had four major annual festivals based on the cyclical differences experienced in the changing seasons of nature and their corresponding weather patterns. The other three were 'Imbolc' (spring) 'Bealtane' (summer), 'Lugnasa' (autumn). The latter was associated with harvest time.

Samhain was a time when food was hoarded as people prepared for the cold season when no plants grew. While many domestic animals such as cattle were brought indoors for the winter, others were slaughtered and most of their meat salted for storage whilst the remainder was cooked for the big feast. As with all Irish festivals, communal bonfires were lit as people gathered together at warm fires to socialise and to give thanks to the deities. Bones of the slaughtered animals were thrown into the fire as symbolic gifts to the gods, an action which give rise to the term ' bone fires' or 'bonfires'. Embers from this sacred fire were taken by local people to their households to light their own domestic fires.

Antecedents to the Pumpkin & 'Trick or Treat'
But Samhain was also a time when creatures from the supernatural world could enter into the world of mortals. 'Fairies' (Irish='Sidhe' as in ‘Banshee’/‘female fairy’) and the spirits of the dead would walk the earth. Many of these beings were benevolent and the spirits of dead ancestors; so families laid out extra food and set aside a table space for their ghostly visitors. This metaphorised into the custom of today's children dressing up as demons and witches & calling to the neighbours' houses to receive presents.
But there were spirits that came on the night of Samhain that were malevolent. Candles were placed in skulls at the entrance to dwellings as light was feared by these dark foreboding creatures. This protection against evil became transformed in modern times into the positioning of hollowed-out turnips and later pumpkins with carved out faces and internal candles at windows and doorways.
Centuries-old party games of trying to eat an apple lying in a basin of water ('bobbing') or dangling on a string tied to a ceiling ('snapping') are still popular festive past-times with Irish children.

The apple is probably the most common edible fruit in Ireland. It was also strongly associated with the spirit world and the fairies (sidhe). In the Arthurian legends, the mystical island of Avalon is where King Arthur obtains his magical sword Excalibur and where he is taken at the end of his life by the Lady of the Lake and her female fairy companions (banshee). Avalon comes from the Welsh word afal or Irish aball.

Fortune Telling at Halloween
Central to the Irish Halloween is the eating of a fruit bread known as 'Barmbrack' from the Gaelic term 'Báirín Breac' (speckled or spotted top). It is still a popular festive food today.
Various symbolic pieces were placed in the dough before it was baked such as a ring, a pea and a stick. When an item was found in the slice when it was being eaten, it told of the future that awaited the recipient. For instance, the 'ring' signified marriage within a year; a 'stick' represented a bad or violent marriage; the 'coin', wealth and a 'pea', a long wait before marriage.

Irish Export Halloween to North America
The Irish emigrants of the nineteenth century introduced Halloween and its rituals to America. Within a few decades, the festival was transformed into the fun and games event of today.

Significant Irish Contributions to World Culture:
No. 7642- 'Dracula'

Considering our national passion of asking the dead to resurrect themselves & drop into the house for a late night meal & party, it should come as no surprise that the world's most well known vampire Count Dracula was the creation of an Irishman, the novelist Bram Stoker in 1887.
His inspiration though was Carmilla, a book about a lesbian vampire created naturally enough(!) by another well known Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu.

(Photos from Macnas Halloween youth parade in Ballinfoile, Galway City)

Michael D Higgins: Celtic Warrior Poet & Dragonslayer!

His life has been an epic struggle of defending the vulnerable and the oppressed against the dark forces of tyranny, oppression and the media lords .

Michael D Higgins (Mícheál Dónal Ó hUigínn) agus TG4.

"Rinne Michael D an gár is tábhachtaí don Ghaeilge nuair a bhunaigh sé TnaG nó TG4 mar a tugthar anois air. Tharraing an gníomh sin teanga na Gaeilge isteach sa nua aois agus thug seasamh agus stadas náisiúnta do ar fud na tíre agus go hidirnáisiúnta le cláir teilifíse den scoth a craoltar ar fud na cruinne agus a bhaineann gradam idirnáisiúnta amach as ucht ard chaighdeán craoltóireachta. Is ambasadóir den scoth é ní amháin do thír na hÉireann ach do teanga na tíre chomh maith. Inteallachtóir atá ann a thuigeann luach na rudaí tábhachtacha sa saol, duine atá mar eiseamlár don chuid is fearr den tír.
Déanaigí an rud ceart agus tabhair uimhir a haon do Michael D. ar an Aoine seo."
Mícheál Ó Meallaigh

Michael D. Higgins: Helped Restore Ireland’s Navigable Waterways

Over the course of the 20th century, Irish canals became increasingly ignored by the state as rail, road and air took over as the main arteries of transportation. Our canals and inland waterways fell into disuse, were abandoned and largely forgotten. A major achievement whilst Michael D. Higgins was Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht was to reverse this trend and allow Ireland’s inland waterways to become major opportunities for sustainable national and local tourism. He began connecting the waterways with the result that Ireland today has over 1000 kilometres of navigable waterways, providing employment and tourism in localities across the country.

Michael D. Higgins: Protector of Irish Wildlife & Irish Bogs.

Dáire standing in Monivea Bog surrounded by bog cotton
As Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Michael D. Higgins signed, on behalf of the Irish government in 1997, the EU Habitats Directive that requires member states to maintain or restore favourable conservation status for certain habitats and species.

Of particular importance were the Irish bogs which account for 10% of the world’s total. This Habitat Directive was and is vital to protect the small number of bogs that are classified as Natural Heritage Areas. Peatlands possess unique biodiversity as well as being important areas for flood prevention, water quality and as critical storage areas for carbon, up to 57,402 tonnes of carbon per year (EPA BOGLAND project).

Michael D became one of the few Irish government ministers ever to enact legislation to protect endangered wildlife and their habitats and to reverse the millennia old destruction and exploitation by mankind of the planet’s natural heritage.

As a former owner (i.e. guardian) of a bog and as a son of a man whose family lived and worked on the great Bog of Allen for generations, I was so proud of what Michael D as Minister did to protect some of the last remaining bogs of Ireland.

Michael D. Higgins: Campaigner against Apartheid in South Africa

Throughout his tenure as Senator and TD, Michael D Higgins campaigned tirelessly at home and abroad against the oppression of peoples, in defense of human rights and in securing justice for all.
It is notable that whilst most Irish parliamentarians over many decades unashamedly kept their mouths shut on human rights abuses particularly perpetuated by western governments and their allies, Michael D had the courage of his convictions not to allow himself to be coerced into silence. He did not distinguish between torture and coercion committed by the USA, China, Soviet Union or any other regime. Whenever the opportunity arose to defend the downtrodden and stand up to the powerful, he did so.
In recognition of this consistent, effective and proud record, he became the first recipient of the Seán MacBride Peace Prize awarded by the International Peace Bureau in 1992.
His international causes included highlighting abuses in countries such as Chile, Iraq, Western Sahara, Turkey, East Timor and Somalia, some of which he visited and some of which he was expelled from.
During the 1970s and beyond, Michael D was a supporter of the Anti-Apartheid movement as it sought to end the racial oppression of blacks in Southern Africa and introduce democracy.
I was with him in 1981 when we and thousands of others protested outside Lansdowne Road against the decision of the IRFU to tour apartheid South Africa and ignore the call for an international boycott of the regime.

The photo shows Michael D. and my dearly departed good friend and former Students Union colleague Maria O’Malley at a UCG Reunion in 2010 holding a poster that I kept from the late 1970s promoting a boycott of South African produce such as fruits that were being openly sold by Dunnes Store and other Irish retailers.

On February 11th 1990, I along with dozens of other peace activists was lucky enough to be with him in a packed Atlanta Hotel on Dominick Street Galway city, as we watched the release of Nelson Mandela from prison unfold live on television. Michael D and many people in Galway and across Ireland were part of the international people power movement that succeeded in finally forcing Western governments to end their support of the racist South African government.
Michael D was a good friend of Kader Asmal,who was founder of the Irish Anti-Apartheid movement, lecturer in law at Trinity College for (1973-1990), and became Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry in South Africa in 1994 in the first post apartheid government.

Since May 2015, I have visited South Africa many times, most recently to Johannesburg this month, primarily in my capacity as a course content creator and master instructor for the wonderful Africa Code Week initiative that is bringing technology skills education and hope to a generation of young Africans across the continent. The leaders of this programme- Claire, Sunil, Julie and Bernard are visionary people that Nelson Mandela would be proud off.

Michael D. Higgins: Life long Campaigner in Struggle to Free Irish Women from Servitude & Discrimination

In the early 1970s, women were treated in Ireland as second-class citizens by the state and as the servants to men by the Catholic Church.
Married women were barred from working in the Civil Service; divorce and the sale of contraceptives were illegal; women got paid less than men for doing the same job; children’s allowances were paid only to fathers; barring orders did not exist to protect wives from violent husbands; wives could not legally refuse to have sex with their partners; women had no legal rights to a share of the family home.

For young women in education and work, there were even problems trying to obtain bank loans. Unlike their male counterparts, the banks were hesitant about providing loans to female students as it was felt that soon after leaving college, they would get married and lose the ability to repay by becoming house-bound wives with no independent incomes.

Michael D Higgins was at the forefront of all the major campaigns to secure equality for women. He was one of the very few members of the Oireachtas that stood by these issues of women’s rights from the 1970s onwards. As with Noel Browne a few decades previously, he earned the wrath of conservative and religious mainstream society at the time, condemned as someone that wanted to undermine family values. This was particularly evident in the Divorce referendum campaigns of 1980s and 1990s. Yet he never backed down in spite of the verbal and written tirades hurled at him

Michael D. Higgins: 'Conscience of the Nation' Revisited

I have known and admired Michael D. Higgins since I came to Galway in September 1975 as a student at University College Galway (now NUI Galway). His activism, speeches and writings inspired me and countless others to follow his example of campaigning and speaking out against the vested selfish anti-patriotic interests in Ireland and across the world that are defined by their need on a daily basis to steal the hard work, dreams and lives of ordinary people.

The Galway Advertiser published my letter entitled 'Consience of the Nation' below in October 2011 during the last presidential election. I am proud to say that Michael D. lived up to the hopes I state in the last paragraph that "His presidency would rekindle our national spirit, making us proud to be Irish, and being able once again to offer something of worth to the wider global community." As someone that works across the continent of Africa, from Cairo to Capetown, and in countries across the Middle East, I know that his political track record and his tenure as presidency are held in high esteem outside Ireland. He has without doubt brought honour to our country.

Dear Editor,
In a period of public disillusionment with a governing system that has been exposed as too often serving vested interests, that sold off our country’s assets and the labour of generations not yet born to pay foreign moneylenders for the gambling debts of bankers, property speculators and their political lackeys, it is refreshing to know that there are still politicians whose actions and deeds mark them off as servants of the people rather than abusers of public office. None more so than Michael D Higgins whose career spanning six decades has been about implementing the ideals of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic “…that guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens…to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation…cherishing all the children of the nation equally…”.
His life has been a never-ending campaign against poverty and oppression and against the powerful elites of church and state both here and abroad who stood in the way of securing equality, justice and due recognition for women, children, gays, artists, minorities and the disabled. He has served as the conscience of the nation on so many occasions and on so many issues, sometimes giving voice to the voiceless, reminding us all, time and time again, of the core values and responsibilities that underpin citizenship, democracy and natural justice. Often this struggle has been a lonely one even within his own political party.
Over the years he has encountered many political setbacks and much personal vilification. But such obstacles never daunted him and today he burns with the same passion, intellect and idealism that he has always possessed. In the last Dáil, he was one of only eighteen TDs that voted against the catastrophic bank bailout.
Michael D sits amongst the pantheon of heroic government ministers that include Frank Aiken, Noel Browne, Seán Lemass and Donough O’Malley whose visionary actions have brought long-lasting benefits to the country. As the first Minster for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, he established TG4, re-invigorated the Irish film industry, gave legal protection to wildlife habitats, ended political censorship in public broadcasting and established a countrywide network of public museums, arts venues and theatres.
A lot of the fundamental rights that we take for granted today in areas such as divorce, access to contraceptives, female equality, status of children and the disabled were only won within the last few decades after long and hard fought campaigns by activists that always included Michael D. Sadly he was too often the lone member of the Oireachtas within their midst. 

Maria O'Malley with Michael D with an Anti-Apartheid poster from the late 1970s at a NUIG Reunion party
He portrays those traits of the Irish that have over the centuries earned us admiration across the world. Our respect for arts, culture, nature, folklore, heritage, sport, hard work, creativity, compassion, egalitarianism, spirituality and community is known in schools, theatres, concert arenas, churches, parliaments, village halls and stadia from Seoul to Berlin; our struggle for nationhood and republican principles has inspired generations of the downtrodden in the Americas, Australia, Africa and Asia; our traditional non-alignment stance has made us trusted by small nations and a popular choice as UN peacekeepers in areas of conflict. 

Michael D’s whole life personifies this positive image of Ireland. If he became president, he would help undo the harm caused at home and abroad by those few but prominent Irish who forgot their roots, were often anti-patriotic tax exiles and epitomised an arrogance and greed that damaged the nation. Michael’s campaign trips overseas were always in solidarity with those communities in need and not junkets or golf outings as was the case with some of his fellow parliamentarians.  His presidency would rekindle our national spirit, making us proud to be Irish, and being able once again to offer something of worth to the wider global community.

Is Mise, le meas,
Brendan Smith