Celtic Origins of Halloween

Halloween's Pagan Celtic Roots
Today Halloween is celebrated by children across the Western world. But like many other annual family festivals, it has become so commercialised by 'Americanised' popular culture that its true origins and religious aspects have long being forgotten. I have nothing against much of the entertainment and children elements now so symptomatic of events such as Christmas, Easter and Halloween. After all, if it brings a bit of sparkle into the lives of our youth, that can only be welcomed.

The Christianisation of Samhain
Many people though associate the origins of Halloween with the Christian festival of 'All Hallows Eve' or 'All Souls Day' when people remember their dead family members.
But actually, this event was superimposed onto the ancient pagan Celtic festival of 'Samhain' which marked the coming of winter and the beginning of the Celtic New Year.

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' (harvest).

Samhain was a time when food was hoarded as people prepared for the cold season when nothing grew. As with all Irish festivals, bonfires were lit as people gathered together at warm fires to socialise.

Antecedents to the Pumpkin & 'Trick or Treat'
But it was also a time when creatures from the supernatural world could enter into the world of mortals. 'Fairies' 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. Hence the modern Halloween custom of children dressing up as ghouls and witches, calling door-to-door and receiving presents of apples and nuts when they called. (Such fruits were common in Ireland).
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 pumpkins with carved out faces and internal candles at windows
and doorways.

Irish Bring Halloween to USA
The Irish & Scottish 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.
(Photos from Macnas' Halloween youth parade, Ballinfoile, Galway City)

Galway City Goes Wild!- Celebration of Urban Wildlife

Galway City's first ever celebration of its rich biodiversity under the theme of ‘Go Wild in the City!’ ended last week.
The timing could not have been more appropriate as the publication this week of the British government's economic report on the environment- the 'Stern Report'- clearly shows the catastrophe the world faces unless urgent measures are undertaken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It warns of the climatic effects of the destruction of wildlife habitats and the possibility that over 40% of species could become extinct this century.
Galway can do its part to take on board the warnings expressed by Richard Stern and most reputable scientists. Protecting Biodiversity in our city will help save humanity itself!
Planting trees and creating urban forests will not only create habitats for wildlife but also lower greenhouse gasesThanks to some funding from Galway City Council/Galway City Development Board/Galway Education Centre and the support of dozens of unpaid volunteers from a plethora of organisations (college departments, Marine Institute, BirdWatch Galway, 'Crann', National Aquarium etc), we were able to provide a variety of opportunities for local people to appreciate for the first time the wonderful variety of plants and animals that exists inside our municipal boundaries.

A Cornucopia of Wildlife Habitats
Galway probably has probably the greatest number of wildlife habitats of any city in Ireland. We have forests, wetlands, turloughs, meadows, lakes, rivers, limestone landscapes, beaches and rockpools to name but a few. Each of these has their own unique set of species. The Week's series of lectures, plantings and nature walks allowed young and old to enjoy the wonders of the locality’s magnificent flora and fauna. Furthermore we helped people to actually increase biodiversity in the city through planting bulbs and creating home gardens thereby improving their own lives in the process.
Some of the most important public events included a talk on the 58 most significant natural habitats in the city; a major conference at the Environmental Change Institute, Galway University on how best to integrate the planning of green zones into urban development and a public lecture on how to create a wildlife-friendly garden .

Planners & Developers Fail to Turn Up!
The school events were totally booked out with 15 schools. Great! The same uptake alas could not be said about the non-school public events- much work needs to be done to ensure a higher attendance for next year's event. But at least the start has been made.
However, we were particularly disappointed with the total failure of any politician, developer, or engineer, planner or parks personnel from City Hall to attend the university Conference on 'Building a Diverse Galway'. After all, the event was organised primarily for their benefit!
...But City Hall Agree on Wildlife Action Committee..
On the positive side it was agreed at a meeting that I attended with the City Manager (Joe MacGrath) to create a joint City Hall-community committee that would lay down the framework for implementing the recommendations of the Galway City Inventory of Wildlife Habitats as adopted by City Council last May.
This new committee will comprise representatives from each of the relevant City Council departments (e.g. Planning, Roads, Parks), the Mayor (ex-officio) & an equal number from other important city stakeholders such as the National Parks & Wildlife Service, BirdWatch Galway, Western Regional Fisheries Board & An Taisce.
It will met for a limited period in order to draft a specific set of proposals to be completed & presented to City Council by Feb/March 2007
The proposals will include putting in place a ‘pilot’ management plan for a selected local biodiversity area & an 'ecological corridor' (or what the Americans call a 'Green Highways'!)

Finally it will lay down the terms & methods for an annual review or monitoring of the 58 habitats as listed in the Inventory Report