The souls of the dead were believed to be able to walk among the living between Hallowe’en and All Souls Day. When darkness fell great care was taken by the living to honour and extend hospitality to their own departed. To welcome the wandering dead on Hallowe’en, front doors were left open, food was prepared, and seats were set by the fire, which was built to burn through the night. Before the household retired to bed prayers were said and candles lit for the souls of those family members who had passed away. In parts of County Wexford candles served another purpose, and were placed in the windows of houses to assist departed loved ones in finding their past homes.
While released from their suffering the hospitality extended to the dead was, in part, offered out of respect, but also as a precautionary measure, as the dead were supposed to be jealous of the living, and believed to take revenge over past grievances. Many feared to set foot outside on Hallowe’en; as Lady Wilde explained ‘according to the popular belief, it is not safe to be near a churchyard on Hallow Eve, and people should not leave their homes after dark, or the ghosts would pursue them . . . if on that night you hear footsteps following you, beware of looking round; it is the dead who are behind you ; and if you meet their glance, assuredly you must die.’
For the mothers of babies who had died before baptism, even as they sat at home, Hallowe’en presented a night of great anguish and sorrow, as prayers could not save the souls of their unbaptised offspring who where thought to be the captives of the fairies, and only released on Hallowe’en when the fairies had their own revels. As a Mayo correspondent wrote to the Graphic newspaper in 1881, unbaptised babies ‘come to gaze hopelessly in at the warm kitchen and the mother from whom it was so crudely torn, while it shivers and wails in the cold. Then she will make the sign of the cross and then weep, but dares not offer up a prayer for the doomed soul, which, she believes, must wander hopelessly for eternity.’
The fairies were thought to be particularly active under the light of the full moon. On those brightly illuminated nights fairies, who lived in beautiful palaces under the sea, were said to come up on to the land to revel and converse with the fairies of Ireland, at fairy mounds and around hawthorn trees, as Lady Wilde explains, ‘on moonlight nights they often come up on the land, riding their white horses, and they hold revels with their fairy kindred of the earth, who live in the clefts of the hills, and they dance together on the green sward under the ancient trees, and drink, nectar from the cups of the flowers, which is the fairy wine.’
As fairies and mortals lived separate but connected lives, the full moon presented greater possibilities of association between these two races. On Inishbofin, for example, dread of the fairies was so strong that when the moon was fullest, young girls were encouraged to stay indoors to avoid being abducted as brides to the fairies, while the good people’s* beautiful music and dancing was said to have tempted many a young girl to leave her home on these most ominous evenings. The full moon also presented an opportunity for the fairies to seek revenge on anyone who had slighted them, and anyone who built over a mound or cut down a fairy tree would do well to stay in on these nights for there are many stories that attest that the fairies took their opportunity to seek revenge on those mortals on moonlit evenings.
* When speaking of the fairies the name ‘good people’ was often used as a precaution to causing offence.
Lady Jane Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, 1887
Lady Jane Wilde, Ancient Cures, Charms and usages in Ireland, 1890
‘There are some days in the week considered unpropitious by the people for certain work or projects. Thus, no one should undertake any business of importance on Wednesdays or Fridays, nor set out on a journey, nor get married; and should the ancient superstition be disregarded, evil will fall on the sinner, and whether it comes from heaven or hell, come it will, so the peasants believe, for the fairies are out on those nights, and have their revels and dances, and no mortal should trouble them. But the fairies never have three parties in the week, for that is the number of the Trinity, and is sacred and holy; so they leave the other days free to men.’