Encounters between the fairies and their human counterparts are said to be particularly prevalent at Halloween. For on that dark night, like May Eve, the veil between this world and the otherworld is at its thinnest. It is well known that on Halloween the fairies shift location and hold their revels in ancient raths, on top of hills, and around lonesome hawthorn trees. Many people would avoid going out on Halloween as the fairies, who are often mischievous and sometimes vindictive, were believed to be particularly boisterous on this night.
Leaving offerings to the fairies on Halloween was a widespread in Ireland, although the custom was steadily in decline from the middle of the nineteenth century. Despite the decline, the custom is still carried out in some Irish households to this day. Although the idea of sharing the Halloween feast with our fairy counterparts sounds like a friendly gesture, these offerings were often presented in an attempt to put a stop to the fairies more sinister activities. During his childhood in the 1920s Seán O’Callaghan of Ballygrane in County Cork recalled that his mother always left a plate of barmbrack and a saucer of milk at the gate of their house on Halloween night, and that his mother believed that if she failed to leave this offering ‘the fairies would come in and break all the crockery in the house.’ Attempts to appease the fairies on Halloween were not restricted to rural areas; the famous Irish playwright, William Butler Yeats recalled being told as a child that offerings were still made on Halloween night in the slums of Dublin to secure protection against the fairies. Those who dared to venture out on Halloween would often carry charms including items made of iron and crucifixes to repel the fairies, Elizabeth Andrews in her 1913 book Ulster Folklore noted that on Halloween in parts of County Derry mothers put salt or oats on the heads of their children to protect them from being abducted by the fairies.
Many who ventured out on Halloween found themselves unexplainably lost in what were once familiar surroundings. In his 1889 book, originally titled Donegal 60 Years Ago, Hugh Dorian provided the following account of the disorientation that was supposed to accompany those who found themselves lost on Halloween, ‘the passerby can hear the sound of music coming from some steep rock, or if a man in the dusk of the evening is looking for some stray animal he experiences their tricks by going astray and wandering about himself, and then he hears them laughing aloud at him in his difficulty.’ If you find yourself lost on Halloween night, or on any other night for that matter, a good way to find your bearings is to turn your coat inside out; as doing so is supposed to break the fairies’ enchantment. If Halloween was a dangerous time to be abducted by fairy hosts, it was also a date that provided opportunities to rescue loved ones who were held in the fairy realm. Father John O’Hanlon noted in his 1870 book Irish Folk Lore that ‘persons taken away to the raths are often seen at this time by their living friends, and usually accompanying a fairy cavalcade. If you meet the fairies, it is said, on All-Hallows’ Eve, and throw the dust taken from under your feet at them, they will be obliged to surrender any captive human being.’
The fairies are not always vindictive to their human counterparts, and there are many stories where the fairies seem to need the assistance of mortals as midwives, musicians, and, in some tales, to carryout abductions. While the fairies are thought to be more inclined to harm humans at Samhain, in some tales their intentions can often seem benevolent; although the outcome can still have a negative impact on the human protagonist as can be discovered in the following short County Leitrim tale taken from the 1894 edition of Folklore:
‘On Hallow Eve, as a young fellow was going home, he chanced to pass a fort, and heard the most beautiful music he had ever listened to in his life. As he stopped to listen, a grand castle seemed to appear before him, and he was invited to enter. Inside he found full of little men running about, and one of them came to him and told him on no account to take any refreshment there or it would be the worse for him, he took nothing. By-and-bye he saw them all trooping out. He followed, and noticed that they all dipped their fingers in a large cask outside the entrance door and rubbed their fingers across their faces. He accordingly dipped his finger in the liquid and rubbed it over one of his eyes. In an instant there was a fine horse ready for him, and away with him and the others over the country, and over the whole world.
Towards morning he found himself lying on the butt of an old haystack, about half-a-mile from his own door, and getting up, he made his way home. The next day he had occasion to go into the market town, and whom should he see, but all his friends of the night, mingling with the people of the place, and going up and down through the market. What must he do but up and speak to some of them, and asked them how they did. Said one to him, “How can you see us?” So he told them that he had dipped his finger in the barrel before the castle door and rubbed it over his right eye. That instant as he spoke the little man struck his eye with a stick he had, and took the sight from it, and it was no more he saw either the good people or anything else with that eye.’
I’m going to finish up this post on Halloween & the Fairies in Irish Folklore with the following popular tale of fairy abduction titled ‘The Fairy Bride.
There was a young farmer who did not believe in the fairies, and so did not fear walking alone near areas where the fairies were known to frequent. One dark Halloween evening he was out hunting geese when he saw three dark figures carrying a coffin. Noticing that they were a man short, and out of respect for the dead, the farmer took the fourth corner of the coffin procession advanced in silence, but soon one of the three figures said that it was time to have a rest, and with that they proceeded to lower the coffin onto the road. As the young farmer laid his corner of the coffin down, he lost sight of the other three bearers, and when he looked up again, they were nowhere to be seen.
Confused by the sudden disappearance of the other three bearers the young farmer looked around and waited for their return, but with the passing of time he came to believe that they would not be returning. While waiting the young farmer felt compelled to look inside coffin. To his great surprise he found a young woman dressed in ordinary clothes, rather than habit that the dead were usually buried in at the time. As he stared at this strange sight the woman opened her eyes at put out her arm to the young farmer. Though he was shocked at seeing the animation in the face and the body of the young woman he extended his hand and helped her to her feet. Once she was standing, he asked the young woman how she came to be in the coffin, but she made no reply to any of his questions and only shook her head, at which stage he realised that she was unable to speak. Not knowing what to do with the young woman the young farmer took her back to his home. She took on many of the household chores, and they got on well, but she never spoke a word.
On the following Halloween the young farmer happened to be passing near the very spot where he had first encountered the young woman on the previous year when he heard voices coming from a nearby rath. He soon realised that the voices were complaining about their failure to carry off the young woman the previous Halloween. One of the voices bragged “he was never able to discover how to make her speak,” to which a second voice replied “and there’s not much hope of that! – small chance he’ll ever find the small pin behind her ear.” Upon hearing this method for breaking the fairies’ enchantment the young farmer raced home and took the pin from behind young woman’s ear, and from that moment her power of speech returned. The two of them kept talking and they were married within the year.
Andrews, Elizabeth. Ulster Folklore. London 1913.
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.
Gregory, Lady Augusta. Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. 1920.
Lynd, Robert. Home Life in Ireland. London, 1909.
McGlinchey, Charles. The Last of the Name. Edited by Brian Friel. Belfast, 1986.
O’Hanlon, John (Lageniensis). Irish Folk Lore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country; with Humorous Tales. London, 1870.
Wilde, Lady Jane, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. London, 1888.
Main painting Dancing Fairies by Richard Doyle, 1824-1883.