Irish Eclectic

Samhain: A Fitting Time to Reflect and Reconsider Roots

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Irish EclecticBefore another word is read, a solid goodbye to a giant of Irish traditional music, Paddy Moloney, a founding member of The Chieftain, who left us on Oct. 11, a young 83. We’ll give him his full due in a future article. 

For now, “Slán abhaile, Padraig!” Safe home!

Given the time of year, it’s fitting to reprise an earlier topic, the Celtic festival of Samhain, what we today call Hallowe’en. Aptly described in Frank Delaney’s eminently readable study, “The Celts,” as “the greatest Celtic festival,” Samhain (pronounced SOW-in, with the “ow” as in “how”) is a perfect time for us to reflect and reconsider our roots, and the beliefs our forebears held close to their hearts.

With the coming of the Christian era, Samhain, along with other Celtic feasts and festivals, was “redecorated,” in this case becoming the Christian Feast Day of All Saints (Nov. 1), also called All Hallows Day. In fact, the term in use today – Hallowe’en – signifies the Eve of All Hallows. Let’s look more closely at Samhain and its lingering presence today.

Sundown on Oct. 31 marks the beginning of the feast. It continues into the following day, Nov. 1, and ends with the setting sun that day. The Celts kept time differently than we do. For them, the 24-hour day began and ended at sunset, rather than our midnight.

Samhain is one of the four major Celtic seasonal festivals, the others being Imbolc (Feb. 1), Beltaine (May 1) and Lughnasa (Aug. 1). Samhain marks the end of the harvest season, the beginning of the Celtic winter, the birth of another year and the beginning of the storytelling season, which would run until spring. At Samhain, we move from the “light” half of the year, to the “dark” half. Samhain continues to exhibit a magnetic hold on the popular imagination, and has morphed into an almost universally celebrated event throughout the Western world: Hallowe’en.

What happens during this almost 24-hour period from dusk to dusk? The boundaries between our world of the living and that of the dead are lifted, and free passage is afforded to the spirits inhabiting the far side, whether good or evil. It is a time for honoring ancestors, inviting them to step through the portal and take a seat at the hearth. We solicit their aid in warding off malevolent spirits who may have slipped through, with the aim of wreaking havoc among the living for the duration of the feast. 

One method of protection is to don evil-looking garb, bizarre costumes and ghoulish masks to fool evil spirits into thinking that someone is already well at work spreading mayhem and havoc. Food is prepared as an offering, both for the living and the dead. Portions left uneaten will be shared later with those less fortunate. A scary night, certainly, but one with great purpose and a stronger chance of calling protection upon oneself and one’s family than most others offered.

Enter Christianity, and a convenient transformation occurs. The Feast of All Saints is on Nov. 1, and the day after, the Feast of All Souls. Why Oct. 31 wasn’t similarly commandeered is a mystery, but may speak to the depth of Samhain’s starting hours in the people’s psyche – strong magic not to be toyed with. And on these Christian feast days, we still honor the dead, saints or sinners, just as the ancient Celts did. On their eve, the custom of wearing disguises to ward off evil spirits endures, a solid favorite of young and old alike. lays out a nice blessing to sum it all up, deftly balancing a blend of beliefs:

“At all Hallow’s Tide, may God keep you safe
From goblin and pooka and black-hearted stranger,
From harm of the water and hurt of the fire,
From thorns of the bramble, from all other danger,
From Will O’ The Wisp haunting the mire;
From stumbles and tumbles and tricksters to vex you,
May God in His mercy, this week protect you.”

Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at or on Twitter (@Bmcgowan52M). He is the author of two books “Thunder at Noon,” about the battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at


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