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custom of placing human skulls with candles at entrances to domestic dwellings in order to ward off evil spirits has been replaced by lights in hollowed-out pumpkins!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