Celtic Origins of Halloween

Halloween's Pagan Celtic Roots
Today Halloween is joyously celebrated by children across the 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 shows my son Dáire & 'friend' that was taken many years ago)

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custom of placing human skulls with candles at entrances to domestic dwellings in order to ward off evil spirits has been replaced by lights in hollowed-out pumpkins!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

Today I was to be on the shores of the Dead Sea.

I have been in Jordan before, teaching coding in schools, universities and in the huge Syrian refugee camp at Za'atari (photo) with my good friends Batoul, Ibi, Claire, Bernard, Bruno, Kevin, Nuala and Shadi.
Yesterday I was supposed to have travelled back to Jordan to present at a UNESCO conference along the shores of the Dead Sea.
My presentation at the ‘Global Media and Information Literacy Week’ conference was, in a time of fake news, online hostility and abuse, to showcase a pioneering good news digital literacy project that was part of a process of bringing hope, creativity, togetherness and positive change across an entire continent.
I was so excited to be doing so!
For since it was established in 2015, the Africa Code Week initiative led by SAP and through a partnership of Camden Educational Trust, UNESCO, Association for the Development of Education in Africa, Irish Aid, multiple African governments and grassroots NGOs, has taught over 100,000 teachers and millions of youth in 41 countries how to become proficient in coding. But it has also through its programmes promoted cultural diversity and respect, inclusivity, female empowerment, art as a learning medium, awareness of the importance of the natural environment, sustainability, innovation, technology skill sets, and delivering an learning environment that is enjoyable, practical, holistic and meaningful to participants.
But today I find myself in Ireland and not in the Middle East. The war in Gaza understandably led to the cancellation of the conference by UNESCO and the Jordanian government.
So my prayers and thoughts are with the Palestinian, Lebanese and Israeli peoples at this very dangerous time. Especially with the residents of Gaza who are living in what is the world’s largest concentration camp being denied water, food, electricity, fuel, education and human dignity whilst their homes and neighbourhoods are being pulverised.
I have worked in Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, with refugees in Egypt and Turkey, taught in schools in the Hezbollah stronghold of Nabatieh, and met with Jews whose parents or grandparents survived the Nazi Holocaust in Europe and the pogroms of Yemen, Iraq and North Africa.
In spite of the suffering I have often seen, I am always inspired by the unbelievably good and kind people I met who in the most terrible circumstances keep on trying to help others.
I am inspired too when I witness over the last week Jewish people marching in the hundreds sometimes in their thousands on the streets of New York, Washington and London demanding justice for their Muslim, Christian and secular Palestinian neighbours and an end to the brutal occupation of the West Bank and the destruction of Gaza.
The Middle East belongs to all of its peoples be they Jew, Shia, Sunni, Christian, Yazidi, Alawite or atheist. There has to be a lasting just peace for all.
But sadly we are living in dangerous times when conflict and war are on the rise due to the machismo arrogance of egotistical male leaders who use differences of religion, race and political ideology to promote division, hate and fear in order to retain power.
In the last few years, we have witnessed ethnic cleansing in Ukraine, Myanmar, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Nagorno Karabakh; tribal lands being stolen in Brazil and India; women being reduced to becoming the property of men in Afghanistan and being treated as second class citizens in Iran; democracy being snuffed out in Hong Kong; the rise of intolerant misogynistic fundamental strands in many religions; our oceans being militarised; fossil fuel companies corrupting the political system in the USA and worldwide; the leaders of some powerful western and Arab countries destroying Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan; and in the case of USA, UK, France and the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, giving complete backing to the most right-wing government in the history of Israel; and witnessing the natural world being destroyed at an ever-increasing rate.
There has been exposure too in the courts of Ireland and across the world of how powerful male clerics of my own Christian Catholic religion have been responsible for the most heinous crimes against untold defenceless innocent children.
Yet I am still an optimist. I wholeheartedly believe in the goodness of ordinary everyday people. I believe in a future where all states are secular, which respects all religions but gives preference to none; that has equality for all sexes, race and creed and where the rule of law exists to protect the citizen from the oppressor; where Climate Change, biodiversity protection, sustainability and social justice is central to all government policies and where all technological innovation, products and processes have to be benign or else they are withdrawn.
In a world where over one million species face extinction due to our behaviour and where our time as a species is running out, we need to recognise the rest of humanity as our brothers and sisters and the planet as our mother.
This can be done if we fully implement the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the Charter of the United Nations-they provide a pathway for us all to follow.
Please look closely at the people in the photo- they are wonderful men, women and children who were forced to flee their homeland of Syria to live in a refugee camp (Za’atari) in Jordan. It was not their choice-they left behind jobs, friends, dreams and so much more to escape persecution and death to live in a camp in a desert.
P.S. Apologies if this piece reads as a naïve and rambling narrative. But I just decided this evening to sit down and write something about how I felt about the state of the world.

Internet Safety mentoring: From Bebo to TikTok.

In these early months of the current school year I have already provided, as part of my work at the Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics of the University of Galway, Internet Safety sessions to parents, teachers and the young people of both primary and secondary schools in counties Galway, Clare and Dublin.

I have been undertaking Cyberbullying Awareness presentations since 2005 and was probably one of the first people in Ireland to do so.
(photo is of a leaflet from 2008 prepared by the primary school in Newport co. Mayo for a talk to parents on my birthday! The content reflects the era).

Since my student college days, I have been a strong advocate of the benefits that digital technologies can bring to people from all walks of life, having spent much of my working life teaching coding and upskilling people in the use of digital technologies. I started doing so in late 1981 soon after leaving university thanks to great inspirational visionary people such as Dr Jimmy Browne.

Immersing myself in web technologies really took off for me in mid 2004 when I became employed as the Outreach Officer of the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI) at what was then NUI Galway. It was when the World Wide Web was for the first time becoming populated with user-generated content. It was exciting to be part of this!

In the early 2000s ‘blogging’ (personal websites) was the new craze; ‘online social media’ in the form of Bebo(2005), MySpace(2003) and Orkut(2004) was starting to appear for the first time; YouTube had just been invented (April 2005); online messaging and video telephony in the form of Skype (2003-4) was capturing people’s imagination; broadband was only being rolled out nationwide; the big bulky desktop computer was the main technology device in business, school and at home; and the smart touch phone in the form of the iPhone had yet to be invented(2007). ‘Email’ was king with many people of all ages acquiring their very first email addresses around this time.

Yet as a parent of both pre-teen and young teenage boys, I could see the dangers that computer gaming and web-based social interaction sites could and were bringing into our young people’s lives. Violence-based gaming, online aggressive pornography, misogyny, racism, cyberbullying, online stalking, and subsequent addiction and mental health issues for many users were a feature of the web even in those early days. People of all ages were suffering and yet there were few rules or guidelines available and nobody was talking about these new but growing problems.

So as a concerned parent and as someone working in a university web scientific institute (DERI), I decided, after securing the very supportive permission of my manager/directors, to put together my own content for delivering pioneering Internet Safety sessions to schools, universities, communities (neighbourhoods, asylum seekers, disability groups). But I always included in these talks (and still do) the benefits of new web technologies, giving a series of examples of exciting new developments especially those invented by young people, the need for stronger government legislation to protect those online including in punishing the very wealthy service providers, and highlighting the importance of good old fashioned benign parenting with the proviso that they make the effort to become aware and knowledgeable of their children’s activities on the web.

Eighteen years later, I am still providing such talks and workshops across Ireland. But sadly I have lost one important resource along the way. Over the years after having ‘the big chat’ with my sons when they were in their pre-teens or early teens and keeping lines of communications open, I learnt more from them that they ever did from me on the strengths, weaknesses, stories, pitfalls and issues associated with the latest social media and gaming sites popular for young people. I used the knowledge gained from them to make my own Internet Safety sessions more powerful, more meaningful, more current. Now that my sons are in their 20s and 30s I no longer have that family resource to call upon. 

So I have to make extra effort to see the Web through the eyes of a child. For in the world of technology, change is constant and one has to keep one’s finger on what is popular today as it becomes history tomorrow.