Irish Contributions to World Culture: No. 7631- 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custom of placing human skulls with candles at entrances to domestic dwellings in order to ward off evil spirits has been replaced by lights in hollowed-out pumpkins!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)

Citizen Science in action- Mobile eco sensor Lab to help schools monitor local Air Quality

As part of the Galway Science & Technology Festival 2019, the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at NUI Galway will be piloting a project to help children and youth in Galway schools to collect and analyse open data related to air quality such as levels of oxygen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulates.
The equipment used will include a 'Mobile Environmental sensors Lab' (see photo) and a 'Visual Data Air Quality monitoring centre' located in the Computer and Communications Museum at the Data Science Institute of NUI Galway.
The project will transform primary school pupils and second level students into citizen scientists collaborating with third level scientists to undertake valuable research designed to help improve the local environment and people’s quality of life.
As part of the process, the young Citizen Scientists will initially be made aware of the properties and impact of the different gases that will be monitored.
Photo shows the core team (the 3 Wise Men!) that is making this project happen (L-R): Niall O Brolchain, Martin Serrano and myself.

Citizen Science training- OpenStreet Map workshop for Galway Science Festival

As part of the Galway Science & Technology Festival, the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at NUI Galway is hosting a workshop on Saturday November 23rd for teachers, community groups, environmentalists, science researchers, geographers, planners and students to learn about and participate in Open Street Mapping, a free, editable map of the whole world that is being built by volunteers. The underlying electronic data is open-sourced and crowd-sourced.
Organised by Ireland’s OpenStreetMap (OSM) community, the free event is open to all interested individuals and groups, and will commence from 11am at the Insight Centre in the Dangan Business Park.

This information and workshop event, taking place as part of our centre’s Citizen Science schedule, will provide a wonderful opportunity for both experts and novices to exchange ideas and experiences on this very important grassroots global initiative.
All over the world, there are restrictions on the availability or the use of map information. OSM aims to remedy this by generating a free, editable map of the world. To date four million people have come together to contribute data to OSM. These volunteers collect data using manual surveys, GPS devices, aerial photography, and other free sources. This crowdsourced data is then made available under the Open Database License. OpenStreetMap contributors have diverse interests and work at differing scales. Some people map their locality, while others work on themes such as public transport, the built environment, graveyards, tree cover, beaches, churches, sports grounds, greenways, energy infrastructures and many other things.
OSM Ireland is affiliated to the worldwide volunteer movement. The purpose of the Galway chapter is to promote contributions of mapped data and re-use of the data, both locally and globally.
To register go to:

Schools Making a Difference on 'Climate Action'- Creggs National School

Creggs is one of the many primary and post primary schools that will be exhibiting at the Science Fair in NUI Galway on November 24th which represents the finale of Ireland's largest ever child-centric (two week) festival on Climate Science.

The school's exhibit will be a tribute to their wonderful Wildlife Park that in 2020 will celebrate twenty years in existence. This large green and blue oasis in the small picturesque village of Creggs, near the Roscommon border, comprises a series of habitats and built heritage. Its wildflower meadow, river, hedgerow, trees, old style well, traditional arched bridge, wooden benches, rock memorials and willow hut is located in a rural countryside of forests, pasture and small farms where deer, foxes and hares can regularly be seen. 
Generations of pupils and teachers assisted, by parents and other volunteers, have created a lovely zone of tranquility that is used daily by villagers of all ages to experience moments of relaxation, reflection and tranquility. This park represents a sustainable resource and a legacy for the benefit of the wider community as well as being home to a wide variety of wildlife. So we look forward to enjoying at the Science Fair the children's celebration of what is one of Ireland's largest and oldest school parks.

Finally it is great to see two of the original founders of the park, Fiona Brandon and Ger Dowd (photo), still serving in the school and still bringing knowledge and excitement to the children with their teaching skills and ideas. I have known them both since I first started working with this fine school on science, technology and heritage projects fifteen years ago and hope to continue to do so for many more years to come

Scoil Shéamais Naofa Bearna san Fhéile Eolaíochta!

Tá Rang 6 i Scoil Shéamais Naofa, Bearna ag obair do dian ar ábhair ag baint leis an téama Gníomhú Aeráide chun taipseántas a thabhairt ag Féile Eolaíochta in Ollscoil na Gaillimhe ar an Domhnach 24ú Samhain. Tá foirne difriúla sa rang ag fiosrú topaicí mar chumhacht athbheochain, cosaint bhitheagsúlacht, bealaí glasa, bia orgánach i mblialanna áitiúla, siopadóireacht ghlas agus ar thraidisiúin feirmeoireachta agus baile sna blianta caite a bhí níos fearr don talamh agus don saol inbhuanaithe. Roghnóigh an rang na topaicí is fearr leo chun iniúchadh níos doimhne a dhéanamh orthu agus a chur i dtaispeántas na scoile ag féile na míosa seo chugainn. 

-Ealaín álainn de nádúir an fhómhair ar bhallaí Scoil Shéamais Naofa!

Sixth class in Scoil Shéamais Naofa Barna is actively researching material based on the theme of Climate Action for their exhibit at the Science Fair on Sunday November 24th in NUI Galway. Teams of pupils are undertaking research into topics such as renewable energies, biodiversity protection, greenways, local organic foods in restaurants, green shopping and on traditions in farming and homelife in times past that were better for the soil and for creating a more sustainable lifestyle. The class will select their favourite topics to delve into more fully and display at the school stand at next month’s fair.

-Beautiful paintings of Nature on the walls of Scoil Sheamais Naofa.

Listen to the Radio!

Working late with carpenter extraordinaire Brendan Walsh as we continue to transform the museum into a more 'hands-on' engaged technology heritage facility.
The latest enhancements are to the Radio zone, where the display areas are being improved and an interactive Morse Code learning element is being added.

Work will continue with a small team of trusty volunteers and artist Helen Caird over the next few weeks as we get the museum ready for a plethora of school visits as part of the Galway Science and Technology Festival (Nov 10th - 24th).

'Secrets of Superhero Science' to be revealed during Galway Science Festival!

Artist extraordinaire Helen Caird is happily painting a series of drawings in the computer museum that will tell the story of how the science fiction of the children's 1960s+ Star Trek television series inspired so many technologies that we have today. It was the 'communicator', 'tricorder', 'holodeck', the computer and bridge's giant screen of the USS Enterprise that motivated people to innovate and create devices from the mobile phone to Cisco's telecommunication equipment.

During next month's Galway Science & Technology Festival, a series of lectures by Barry Fitzgerald from Eindhoven, entitled 'Secrets of Superhero Science', will be hosted by the Insight Centre/Data Science Institute of NUI Galway. The audience will explore the science behind the superpowers of some of your favourite superheroes. They will learn about genetic mutations and the X-Men, the advanced eyesight of Hawkeye, the possibility of shrinking in size just like Ant-Man and the Wasp, the advanced technologies in the Iron Man suit, and how likely is it that society will be able to replicate these superpowers in the future.
These exciting talks will be followed by guided tours of the Computer and Communications Museum where visitors will be introduced to the stories of some of these Fiction-to-Fact technologies and to view rare Marvel/DC and other classic comics from the 1960s-1980s.

Schools Making a Difference on 'Climate Action'- St. Nicholas Parochial School.

It is inspiring to see so many schools enthusiastically getting involved in Ireland's largest ever child-centric festival on Climate Science that is taking place from November 10th until 24th.
St. Nicholas Parochial School, Woodquay, Galway city is one of those schools.
A visitor to their premises will be impressed by the beautiful environmental art on display including a huge oceanic theme mural (see photo) in the playground.
The children of this school will be exhibiting at Ireland's largest one day festival of science that will be taking place across the NUI Galway campus on Sunday November 24th.
St. Nicholas's projects will be based on the biodiversity of the Terryland Forest Park-River Corrib area and the network of 'boreens' (country lanes) that emanate from it into the rural hinterland of Coolough, Menlo and Castlegar.
Is your school taking part in the finale of the Galway Science and Technology Festival 2019 at the university on November 24th?
If not, there are still places available. We would love to see your pupils and students demonstrating to the world their awareness and solutions to Climate Chaos and Biodiversity Loss.
To book a stand, register at

Schools- Register now to get free Native Irish Trees for planting during Galway Science & Technology Festival

Primary Schools can book their trees at
Secondary schools can book at

The photo is from a community mass tree planting (Plantathon) held in Terryland Forest Park during 2012. This community-initiated city forest park had its first trees planted in March 2000 at a Plantathon attended by over 3000 people. Thanks to Galwegians of all ages, it is estimated that there are now over 90,000 trees in what is Ireland's largest urban forest initiative

Every School to plant trees during Galway Science Festival!

Thanks to the generousity of Aerogen, the Irish medical tech company, every primary and post primary school in Galway city and county will be offered a free tree pack, consisting of four different native Irish species, as part of next month's Galway Science and Technology Festival. Our theme for 2019 is Climate Action and we want to ensure that all our young people will be given an opportunity to play their part in saving the planet and in understanding the science behind Climate Chaos.

So the proposal is that the schools will plant the trees in their grounds or locality at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month (11am, Nov 11).
Each school will be asked to photograph or film the planting (or of the trees after planting) and post onto online social media. The best three images/films will be awarded €200 vouchers for Dangan Nurseries (to buy more trees and flowers for planting!).
Through this wonderful initiative which feeds into the National Park Strategy for Galway, the young people of our city and county will be active participants in tackling climate chaos and enhancing biodiversity.

Call to Galway youth to turn Climate Protest into Climate Science

We are asking Galway’s children, youth and schools to consider transforming the enthusiasm and concern that was so obvious at last month’s Climate Strike protests into meaningful sustainable scientific climate action themed projects for showcasing at November’s Galway Science and Technology Festival, in order to increase public awareness on the dangers of, as well as the solutions to, global warming and the mass extinction of species.
The children of the world have spoken and the adults of the world need to heed their warnings. But as the sixteen year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has stated over and over again, ‘Listen to the Science’. The theme of the annual Galway Science and Technology Festival taking place next month is ‘Climate Action’. So, as part of this two week long event, we are calling on all of Galway schools to open their doors to their communities and to display their Climate Change-related projects during this period.  Every one of the almost three hundred schools in the city and county are undertaking at least one wonderful scientific project  that is directly or indirectly related to the twin global dangers of climate chaos and biodiversity loss .  With the message of ‘Think Global, Act Local’, these may include a study of a local bog, turlough, river or seashore; the implementation of pro-recycling waste management system in a school; the development of a school organic garden; the monitoring of local air quality;  a long term study of the causes of changing weather patterns; the planting of a woodland or bee-friendly wild flower meadow; an analysis of renewable energies; the hosting of cycling and walking initiatives; a  review of how to one’s lifestyle more healthy.
But we are also asking schools to consider reaching a wider audience by exhibiting on Sunday November 24th in NUI Galway when over 22,000 visitors attend Ireland’s largest one day science and technology fair. This event also hosts a fantastic range of exhibits from world leading Galway-based corporations, indigenous companies, learning centres, and third level colleges and research institutes.”
A number of other exciting Climate Change and Citizen Science initiatives are being planned for the festival including a native tree planting programme involving every school in the city and county.
To book an exhibition space at the Science Fair on November 24th, schools and youth groups are asked to contact me  at

Proud to be Irish in Tanzania!

A few weeks ago I was present in Dar es Salaam to listen to the Irish Ambassador to Tanzania, Paul Sherlock, officially announce that Irish Aid, the Irish government's international development aid programme, had become a partner and sponsor of the Africa Code Week(ACW) initiative.
I was there in the companionship of my fellow Irishmen, the wonderful Kevin Conroy and Liam Ryan (SAP Ireland CEO), as well as the visionary Claire Gillissen from France.
It was my third trip to this lovely country in my capacity as a lead mentor and course content developer for ACW. The first time was during the summer of 2017 in the company of Bernard Kirk, Camden Trust CEO/ Director of the Galway Education Centre, and Ciaran Cannon TD, then newly appointed Minister of State for the Diaspora and International Development.
This Irish Aid announcement continues a long tradition, going back to the 19th century, of Irish people being involved in supporting the continent and its people in the areas of education, health, community development and human rights.
In so many African countries that I have visited since 2015, I have talked to Africans that tell me fondly of the help that they have received from the Irish. In Uganda it was a senior civil servant called Patrick who was taught by Irish priests; in South Africa it was a Muslim teacher who was given his schooling by Irish clerics; in Ethiopia it was a NGO manager applauding the work of Trócaire and Camara in his country; in Tanzania it was the teenagers of the Holy Union Sisters Debrabant High School praising their principal, Sister Annette Farrell from Kilconnel in east Galway.

Unlike some other European countries, Ireland never came to Africa as an colonial power to brutally rob it of its human and natural resources. We came not as conquerors but as educators and healers. During the days of the British Empire, when our own country was a colony, our countrymen and women often arrived as teachers and doctors to countries such as Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. It was said by many that I have met during the course of my travels across the continent that, where it not for the Irish clerics, their parents and grandparents would never have got an education. So many leaders of the independence movement were taught in Irish-run schools.
This Irish tradition of education and community empowerment continues with the ongoing work of Trocaire, Concern, Gorta Self Help Africa, Goal and Irish Aid that includes individuals that I have known and that I have the upmost respect for, such as Ronan Scully, Alan Kerins and Diarmuid Ó'Brien.
But this tradition also got a major technology learning surge in recent years with the involvement of Irish personnel of SAP Ireland and of Camden Trust as trainers in the wonderfully inspiring Africa Code Week. Along with Claire Gillissen, Bernard Kirk played a fundamental role in establishing in 2015 what today is surely the largest pan-Atlantic digital literacy initiative in the history of the continent. Thanks to the great organisational skills of Sunil Geness, Ibrahim Khafagy, Julie Cleverdon, Ademola Ajayi and so many other great Africans, it is supported by 28 governments, partnering 130 partners (mainly local NGOs), has been rolled out to 37 countries and has provided coding workshops to over 4.1 million youth and teachers.
The aim of Africa Code Week is to build community capacity to drive sustainable learning impact across Africa instilling coding skills in the young generation.
So I give a big and sincere 'Bualadh Bos' to my fellow Irish men and women who worked with me in Africa as part of ACW- Kevin Conroy, Nuala Dalton, Nuala Allen, Cliodhna and Aoife Kirk. Africa's time has come and they have helped it to happen

40+ years on and we are still protesting at Eyre Square!

It was great to join my good friend Mick McArdle and his teenage son from Kinvara in the youth-led Climate Action protest this lunchtime in Eyre Square. It brought back happy memories of our time in UCG during the late 1970s when Mick and myself regularly joined hundreds of other young students in marches and protests to Eyre Square on many different campaigns on many different issues but with a common denominator of justice, equality and a better life for all in Ireland and across the globe.

Decades later we are still there fighting the same or similar battles! Though no longer young, we hope that the same idealism still burns within us. As Mick says, “Still crazy, but active, after all these years.”
I just made it to the protest in Galway as I only arrived back in Ireland at Dublin Airport from Mozambique (mentoring coding workshops for teachers) a few hours before!
Of course marches do not in isolation achieve positive change. But they are often a very positive step in the process to do so