Analysis: Oíche Shamhna was a night associated with tales about púca and other supernatural beings making merry in this world

Oíche Shamhna or Halloween, is a Celtic festival marking the transition between summer and winter. It was believed that the borders between this world and the otherworld are blurred on this night, allowing fairies and other supernatural beings into the human realm, as well as enabling mortals to enter different worlds, willingly or not as the folklorist Kevin Danaher describes it!.

A fantastic mine of information about supernatural beliefs and practices surrounding Halloween is the Schools' Collection, a folklore archive collected by primary schoolchildren in the 1930s consisting of local stories gathered from their family and neighbours. About 50,000 schoolchildren across the country took part and this record is now digitised and available online.

Souls of the dead

Terence Ryan (74 years of age) from Bellanagare in Roscommon told schoolgirl Eileen Mc Cormack a common story of deceased relatives coming back from the dead at Halloween "Long ago people believed that all the deceased member of the family came back on that night and that they shared of the Hallowe'en supper invisibly".

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Mrs Eileen Haran from Westport in Mayo expanded on this belief to schoolgirl Nancy Haran. "It was said that the souls in purgatory were released for forty eight hours and they used visit the place they were born and reared in, and the old people used to clean the hearth and lay the table for them on Halloween night".

Many other accounts tell of keeping the fire lit on Halloween night and leaving a window or door open for the spirits. Alan Owens from Skerries in Dublin tells us that "on Hallow eve one of the custom in Skerries is to leave a fire lighting going to bed and to leave a table and a chair beside it with some food. If a door is left open the food is supposed to be eaten by the spirits, for whom it is left out"

The púca

Of all the ghosts and fairies abroad on Halloween, the púca (or pooka) was the most feared and October 31st was known as Púca Night in parts of Ireland. The púca, meaning 'goblin', can be malevolent or benevolent and is not solely associated with Halloween. It's a mythological fairy and the ultimate shapeshifter, capable of appearing in a variety of forms but most commonly as a dark horse or part dog.

They have the power of speech and normally whisk an unsuspecting traveller away on their back to travel across the country. In Irish Fairy tales and Folklore (1892), WB Yeats specifies that the púca is fond of tangling with people who are intoxicated, or in his words "especially does [the púca] love to plague a drunkard,"

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Schoolboy Mattais De Burca from Kilnaneave in Co Tipperary tells us that children were afraid of fairies. "After the games the young people sit by the fire and listen to the old people tell stories about the fairies. Young people are generally afraid to go out on Halloween as they say "the pooka and fairies are out".

Many of the stories about the púca on Halloween night revolve around a traveller coming home late and encountering a púca, who then carries them off on his back across varying distances across the country. The traveller may learn a 'lesson’ from his or her encounter with the púca.

Schoolgirl Delia Hegarty from Bracknahevla, Co Westmeath recorded Paddy Ward and the Pooka, a story from a family member James Hegarty. "Long ago there lived in Loughnavally a trickster named Paddy Ward. He was a great sportsman and attended gatherings of every kind. One Halloween he was coming home from a wedding with two or three other men. When passing Killan graveyard his comrades dared him to go into the graveyard. It was two o'clock. Paddy said he would walk two rounds of it. The conversation previously had been on ghosts etc.

Never after, did Paddy venture abroad after ten o'clock

"Paddy went in, but on getting halfway round he was knocked down by the "Pooka". The Pooka, in spite of Paddy's struggles and shouts of terror, took him on his back and soared into the air with him. His companions lost no time in running home. Paddy on the Pooka's back was taken for a ride over the hill of Uisneagh, the hill of Skeigh, the hill of Knackasta and in Paddy's opinion over every hill in Ireland. In very quick time he was landed at his own doorstep, much earlier than his comrades’ arrival. There they found him, blubbering like a child. He was very exhausted and didn't leave his bed for three weeks. Never after, did Paddy venture abroad after ten o'clock."

Other Halloween stories about the púca involve the annual blackberry harvest. Schoolgirl Mary Connolly from Twomilehouse in Co Kildare was told by her grandmother to never eat blackberries after Halloween because "the "Pooka" soils them", while John Carey from Bruree, Co. Limerick has a similar story but believes the blackberries are now "reserved for the "Good People".

Brigid Ní Longáin explains that the taboo of picking blackberries after Halloween actually applies to all fruit. She told schoolboy, Edward Long that "all garden fruits must be picked before Hallow'een night. If this is not done the pooka will mark them and the fruits cannot be eaten".

Ireland has a hugely rich folkloric history of supernatural beliefs associated with Halloween and the Schools Collection is an excellent digitalised resource accessible to everyone who wants to know more about Irish folklore.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ