In Ireland Hallowe’en has a long tradition as a night for games and mischievous adventures, at one time, at least in parts of County Waterford, Hallowe’en was known as oídhche na h-aimléise, ‘The night of mischief or con’, while in some areas of Counties Cork and Kerry Hallowe’en is traditionally referred to as Snap Apple Night – in recognition to the central role played of apples in a number Hallowe’en games that are still played annually on this the last night of October which welcomes the winter.
Bobbing or ducking for Apples
Diving or ducking for apples is a game that has survived into our own times and remains a favourite pastime with children on Hallowe’en night. In setting up the game a barrel or basin of water is placed on the floor with a number of apples floating on the surface. The contestants hold their hands behind their backs. The game is played by the participants attempting to sink their teeth into one of the apples – a feat which can only be achieved if the apple is pushed to the bottom of the container. In variants of the game coins are added either to the bottom of the barrel or wedged halfway into the apples.
Snap Apple is another game still widely played in households across Ireland on Hallowe’en night. For this game an apple is suspended, just above the height of the contestants, by tying the apple’s stalk with string to a beam, rafter or some other elevated surface in the house. The contestants stand some distance away and take turns in making a running leap at the apple in an attempt to sink their teeth and take a bite of the apple.
A more boisterous and potentially dangerous variant of Snap Apple, which has declined
dramatically over the previous century, involves the use of two pieces of wood or sticks with pointed ends tightly fastened together in the shape of an x or cross. A lighted candle and an apple were impaled on alternative ends of the cross. The cross would be suspended from the rafter with a piece of cord which was twisted tight so that it would revolve at a great pace when untangling itself. The object of the game is to get a bite of the apple – but many end up with a face full of wax.
Riding or Shoeing the Wooden Mare
Another game that was a feature of Hallowe’en gatherings was known as ‘Riding or Shoeing the Wooden Mare.’ John Donaldson gives a detailed description of how the game was played in his 1838 work A Historical and Statistical Account of the Barony of Upper Fews in the County of Armagh:
‘It [the wooden mare] is made of a pole, or strong handle of a fork or shovel, about 6 feet long; this is tied at both ends with a rope which is secured in the middle to a joist or beam from which it suspends in a horizontal position about 18 inches from the ground.
The operator mounts and places his limbs like a tailor across the pole and catches it between his thighs with one hand, and has a short stick to balance himself in the other hand. When he has his beast settled (for she is ticklish and uneasy), he hits her a blow with his short stick, which is putting in a nail, and then as soon as possible applies the stick to the ground in order to balance himself, but it often happens, if the stick be not placed near her centre, she wheels round and the operator falls. There are some people, however, who have a knack of keeping her steady and putting in the requisite number of nails.’
Making mischief on Hallowe’en night is a long-established tradition in Ireland. Through the veil of darkness all sorts of antics are resorted to by wandering gangs of youths as they travel though the lonely country roads, villages and the towns of Ireland creating havoc with the knowledge that their transgressions could be blamed on the fairies, who are known to be particularly active on Hallowe’en night.
A number of imaginative ruses were noted by Irish folklore collectors over a hundred years ago which included removing gates from hinges, pouring water down the chimneys, and a sophisticated form of the knick knack* prank, which involved tying the knockers of a row or a terrace of houses together so that when one door was opened the knockers of the remaining houses tap and rattle in unison. Cabbages seem to have played an important role in the revelry that accompanied Hallowe’en; an 1893 article noted that in County Leitrim ‘the lads steal all the cabbages they can, and break them in pieces by throwing them on the roads, which are sometimes found covered with the debris of broken cabbage in the morning.’ While in a 1907 article by Hugh James Byrne described how the youths in Roscommon targeted misers and difficult neighbours for their “practical jokes” which included taking ‘the pith out of a cabbage-stalk and stuff it in with hay, and put in a lighted turf, which makes the hay smoulder, and puff the smoke through the keyhole, filling the house with a disagreeable smell.’
*Ringing a doorbell or knocking on a door and running away.
Byrne, Hugh James. ‘All Hallows Eve and Other Festivals in Connacht.’ Folklore 18, no. 4 (1907), 437-439.
Dorian, Hugh. The Outer Edge of Ulster: A Memoir of Social Life in Nineteenth-Century Donegal. Edited by Breandán Mac Suibhne & David Dickson. Dublin, 2000.
Donaldson, John. A Historical and Statistical Account of the Barony of Upper Fews in the County of Armagh. Dundalk, 1923.
Duncan, Leland L. ‘Folk-Lore Gleamings from County Leitrim.’ Folklore 4, no, 2 (June 1893), pp. 176-194.
Haddon, A. C. ‘A Batch of Irish Folklore’ Folklore 4, no. 3 (1893), 349-364.
Omorethi. ‘Customs Peculiar to Certain Days, Previously Observed in County Kildare.’ Journal of the Co. Kildare Archaeological Society and Surrounding Districts V (1906-1908), 439-454.
O’Sullivan, Maurice. Twenty Years A-Growing. Translated by Moya Llewelyn Davies and George Thomson. Dublin and London, 1933.