Halloween has Irish roots. It developed out of the pre-Christian Celtic New Year called Samhain, when it was believed that supernatural creatures and departed souls could come creeping from the spirit world to torment the living. But that isn’t why Halloween is so much more disturbing here than in North America. In many ways, Halloween has toured the world and come back in a very Americanized form with store bought costumes of cartoon characters and trick or treating for candy. But some of Ireland’s other Samhain traditions have been modernized in a way that some of us North Americans find far more disturbing than a visitor from the spirit world.
Things that go ‘boo’ aren’t that much bother compared to things that go ‘boom’. Independence Day in the United States usually involves unceasing warnings about using fireworks safely, and people tend to go to safe, sane, professional displays or stick to sparklers and other small, legal and relatively safe fireworks.
But that’s just not the Irish way. Halloween is when you get fireworks in Ireland, but visitors might be surprised to learn they are actually illegal. That apparently deters absolutely no one. The gardai tackle this with varying degrees of success every year, and a good bout of truly miserable, wet weather in October helps too. Other years, housing developments across the country sound like a war zone from late September through Halloween with the unceasing noise starting at dusk and raging on through the late hours as immigrants to Ireland (such as this writer) and some oddball Irish locals huddle in their beds with headphones on cursing anyone who wakes their small children.
Basically, in October the population of Ireland can be divided into two groups: those who stockpile fireworks and those who stockpile sedatives for themselves and their pets.
It Gets Worse
Those who have not visited these shores for this special season would be forgiven for thinking that surely Halloween night must bring some relief as the little goblins can be appeased and entertained by trick or treating. Oh no. The little ones are absolutely adorable as they make their way through the neighborhoods shaking people down for candy treats. And there are nice events on too. It’s the slightly bigger ones who are truly terrifying, especially to those us from parts of the world where awareness of the danger of fire is part of normal life.
One Samhain tradition that has continued is bonfires. Giant, towering bonfires that would wreck sheer destruction in a dryer climate are lit on Halloween night. For weeks beforehand, youngsters are out stealthily scavenging for anything that will burn. From discarded wooden pallets to old furniture to your car, it’s all seen as wonderful bonfire fuel by someone.
Why bangers and bonfires linger and charms in barm brack are now considered a dangerous choking hazard defies explanation, but for those of us who prefer our treats to be a bit more tame, a nice slice of barm brack and a cup of tea in front of the fire in the nice, safe fireplace has a lot more appeal than standing in the rain hoping it is really wet enough to prevent disaster.