Oíche Shamhna, Halloween, has its roots in Ireland. Samhain was celebrated on the first of November as the split between Summer and Winter. The division between this world and the ‘other’ was considered at its thinnest. On the night before, food was placed at people’s doors for the spirits of the dead. Fruit and nuts were gathered for festivities and featured in games and rituals. (1)
With mass Irish emigration to America in the 1840s due to the Irish famine, celebrations were carried overseas and merged with transnational traditions, such as the harvest of the pumpkin, to form the holiday recognized today. In nineteenth century Ireland, it was believed people had power over their future and the devil on Oíche Shamhna. The evil one was obliged to answer any person’s question in his name. (2)
Jeremiah Curtin was a nineteenth century folklorist and ethnographer that recorded a piece of Halloween lore linked to County Limerick. In 1892, Curtin recorded sixteen folk-tales from Irish speaking people in Ireland. Translated and printed first in the American daily newspaper, The New York Sun, The tinker of Ballingarry and his three wishes tells the story of a Limerick man named Jack. (3) With his wife, Jack lived in a small cottage with an apple tree. As a tinker, Jack travelled Ireland’s paths and roads as a tinsmith. On one of Jack’s travels, he came across a man who offered him three wishes.
Jack had but one armchair in his cottage. Jack’s first wish was that whoever sat on his armchair that forced him to stand would be stuck to the chair until Jack said the word. Next, Jack wished the young children and dishonourable people who stole apples from his garden be stuck there until he let him go. Jack told the man on the path of how his wife’s large leather bag she put wool inside was often tampered with by people in the village. Jack’s last wish was that everything placed in the bag would be left there until his say-so.
Some time after his meeting with the wish-granter, Jack had an accident, and lay at home in Ballingarry for a whole year. At death’s door from hunger, the devil arrived at Jack’s cottage door, offering him comfort and riches. For Jack’s end of the bargain, he was to come with the devil at the end of seven years.
Jack accepted, and at the end of seven prosperous and comfortable years, the devil returned to Limerick. Jack offered the devil into his cottage to sit on his armchair as he said goodbye to the wife. The devil tried to rise, but he could not move from the chair. To be released, the devil let out a screech that could be heard over three Limerick townlands and offered Jack twice as much wealth and fourteen years to enjoy it. Jack accepted.
The fourteen years passed quickly for Jack as he had much wealth to spend. On the fourteenth year, the devil arrived in Ballingarry in late Autumn, when Jack’s apple tree was laden with fruit. For the journey, Jack asked the devil to gather some apples. Springing for an apple, the devil was left hanging from the tree. Shouting and screeching, struggling and pulling, to be released, the devil offered Jack three times the wealth he had at first and twenty-one years to enjoy it. Jack accepted.
Jack had abundant riches for twenty-one years. At the end, the devil stood before him, weary of the Limerick man’s tricks and turns. The devil warned Jack that when he was in is kingdom, he would pay for what he had done. Jack said to the devil of how when he was young, himself and the children of Ballingarry would play tricks together. Jack told how he was so active, he used to jump in and out of his wife’s old leather bag. Challenging the devil, Jack held the bag open and the devil sprang in, where it was closed in an instant. The devil promised never to come back to Limerick and would give Jack four times the amount of wealth to be released from the bag. Jack accepted.
Jack’s day came at last and he went to the other world. Stood at the door of the good place, he knocked. The answer received was; ‘go to the one you worked for all your life, you cannot come here’. Knocking on the gate of the bad place, the response from the devil himself in a fearful and trembling voice was; ‘Oh! Do not let him in! he will destroy every one of us! Going back to the gate of the good place, Jack was sentenced to travel the world forever and carry a small lantern. He was to have no rest, but wander over the land and sea leading people astray. Still roaming and travelling today, he is known as Jack O’ Lantern.
Thanks to team member Aisling for researching and writing this piece.
1. National Museum of Ireland, ‘Traditions and customs of Halloween/Samhain’ (https://www.museum.ie/enIE/Collections-Research/Folklife-Collections/Folklife-Collections-List-(1)/Religion-and-CalendarCustoms/Hallowe-en-Samhain) (14 Oct.2020).
2. Irish Times, 4 Nov. 1893.
3. Jeremiah Curtin, Irish folk-tales, collected by Jeremiah Curtin (1835-1906) (Dublin, 1944).
Images from Joan Ryan and Gordan Snell, The haunted hills: ghost tales of Ireland for children (Dublin, 1984) p.40, 54 & 92. Museum of Childhood Ireland, Músaem Óige na hÉireann Collection.
Photographs by Gerard Greaney.