Halloween is never quite the same when you get older, especially in Ireland where the excitement seems to be reserved for the youth.
Thinking back, how could you ever get so excited over wearing a black bin bag out in the cold and rain as a "costume?"
We have a look at some of the best childhood memories of Halloween in Ireland and the special traditions:
The first thing you’d pick up for Halloween in Ireland was a False Face (you never called them Halloween masks growing up, people would look at you). They were practically impossible to see out of, but when you put one on you were instantly convinced you had transformed into a scary ghost, witch, or goblin.
Then the only thing was to find your granny and give her a good scare, which if she was in a good mood, she’d pretend had been successful, with a lot of theatrical screaming and chest-clutching.
What you’ll remember most: How sweaty the mask got within seconds of being put on your face. That and the weird chemical smells of the paint.
Bobbing for apples
Some people with no self-restraint also sometimes call this bobbing for eyeballs. It involves filling a basin with cold water and placing an apple (or apples) inside. Players then have to catch the apple with their teeth. Arms are not allowed and the more uptight will actually enforce this rule by tying yours behind your back to make sure you comply.
What you’ll remember most: The game was called “ducking” or even “dooking” in some parts of Ulster and if you played it before 1990, you’ll have a clear sense of what waterboarding might feel like.
Pumpkins were pretty much unheard of in Ireland before 2000. Your parents had to get creative and carve a large turnip instead. I really hope you appreciate the sheer effort that was involved in this enterprise. Turnips are next only to concrete in terms of malleability.
What you’ll remember most: Nothing says I love you like a miserably hard job undertaken by a devoted parent to delight their thankless child.
A run past the graveyard
Kids usually feel invincible, but lonely graveyards on the edge of town are a thing that can still utterly terrify them. Every year some of the bolder kids would propose an impromptu ghost hunt in the most broken-down and atmospheric graveyard that they could find. Of course, you had to climb over a wall to get into it. I mean it was pointless if you could just swan in through the open gates.
Once there you had to pretend to be brave whilst your knees knocked and the older kids tried every sneaky trick they could think of to scare the bejaysus out of you. Sometimes that involved a friend in a horror mask jumping out to terrify you all.
What you’ll remember most: The hair on the back of your neck standing up, then the race for your life to your bicycle and your mammy, in that order.
Breaking up horrible barmbracks for the coin inside
Store-bought barmbrack could be used to build houses. A sweet, but also sour, fruitcake concoction. It’s delicious when it’s homemade but frequently indigestible when it’s not. It only interested kids because each one had a coin or a ring hidden inside it and it was considered fortunate (and an honor) to be the lucky one who found it.
Apple on a string
This game could also have been called 'Collision Course' or 'Accident and Emergency.' The setup was simple. An apple was hung from a string above a doorway, and the player had to take a bite without using their hands. A game for one player that somehow always inspired more to participate, it could end up with bumped foreheads and tears.
What you’ll remember most: The way the apple would orbit your head like an elusive moon.
The Irish weather
By late October in Ireland, the sun drops out of the sky in the afternoon and a blanket of thick darkness follows it. Trees stand bare as skeletons and the rain showers and the blowing leaves take turns adding atmosphere. You can see why the ancient Irish created festivals to light the darkness and meditate on this world and the world to come.
What you’ll remember most: The first true blast of winter and the Irish response, which is to light the lights and have a party.
Granny’s ghost stories
There once was an old man who lived out by the mill river and it was said he made a deal with the devil. No one remembers him now but your granny, who will recount his terrifying meeting with the lord of the underworld as you cuddle up together with a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit by a roaring fire. No one tells a good ghost story like an elderly Irish woman because no one knows more about hauntings. So buckle up.
What you’ll remember most: The contrast between the terrible supernatural doings and your granny’s cozy kitchen.
A holiday with no mass!
Everyone knows that Halloween belongs to the other crowd. That means priests and nuns keep a low profile on this night of nights and grant one to the ghosts and goblins. Halloween is followed by All Saints Day, a holy day.
What you’ll remember most: How much more fun Halloween is.
Dressing up and acting out
Halloween is the one night of the year when the usual rules don’t apply. All bets are off and you can be a man, a woman, a ghost, a wizard, a witch, a monster, an alien, or just as weird as you want to be. Consequently, Halloween parades and celebrations tend to take on a carnival atmosphere. Nowhere in Ireland is as buttoned-down as the northwest, which is probably why Derry City produces the most remarkable Halloween celebrations year after year.
What you’ll remember most: In Derry, the focus on detail is astounding; people spend the entire year planning their outfits for Halloween night. Forget those simple store-bought costumes. You’re going to see outfits that give professional costume designers a serious run for their money. And you’ll have one of the best nights of your life while you’re at it.
* Originally published in 2016, updated in 2023.