Halloween Divination in Ireland

Illustrated London News, 1871

In Ireland Hallowe’en is the most popular night of the year to practice divination, which provides much amusement and excitement. As summer turns to winter on this night, the boundaries between this world and the Otherworld are believed to be less pronounced, and so on Hallowe’en many games, rituals and rites were, and still are, performed partly in jest and partly in earnest, with the object of gaining insight into one’s fate.

One activity involved setting several objects out in saucers or plates, which were then laid on a table. The chosen objects varied from one region to another, and even between different households, but generally a few of the following were included; a ring, a piece of wood, clay, a bean, a coin, salt,  water, a button or a thimble. Once the saucers were set, a blindfolded person, seat before them would pick one, the item which the person touched was symbolically believed to indicate their future situation in life.  A ring meant the person would be married, a piece of wood or clay meant that they would die young, a bean or a rag meant that they would always be poor, while a coin indicated that they would be wealthy, salt was for luck, water meant that the person would emigrate or travel, while if one picked the saucer with a button or thimble it was believed they would die bachelor or a spinster.

In another divination game nuts were used to determine if two young people would be good together when married. Two nuts were named after a pair, usually both being present, and placed on the grate or on the turf ashes of the fire, to burn side by side. Chestnuts, wall-nuts and hazelnuts were traditionally the most popular for this activity, while grains of wheat were also sometimes used. If the nuts burned together it was taken as a sign that the young couple would end their days happily married to one and other, however, the pair would not marry if one hopped off, while if one burned fully and not the other, it was taken as a sign of unrequited love.

Other activities took place outside the house on Hallowe’en, for example, cabbages were picked by blindfolded young women*on that night, in the belief that the appearance of the cabbage would reflect the attributes of their future husbands. If a well grown cabbage was picked it indicated that the girl would have a handsome husband, while if the cabbage had a rotten or crooked stalk it was said to signify that the girl’s husband would be a “stingy old man”. A cabbage with two heads was said to protend that the girl would end a widow, while if the cabbage was hollow in the centre it foretold that the young woman would never marry and end her days as a spinster. Additionally, the number buds on the cabbage were believed to correspond the number of children the marriage would produce, and many accounts state that the cabbage must be stolen.

Illustrated London News, 1865, by  J.T. Lucas

While the above practices were generally carried out in company, other forms of divination were traditionally carried out a person alone. These practices often commenced at midnight, and were always performed in the name of the devil. One described by Lady Jane Wilde as “the most fearful of all” involved a girl uttering an incarnation before a looking-glass, in the expectation of catching a glimpse of her future husband, it happened sometimes that instead of seeing their future love, the looking-glass instead reflected an image “too terrible to describe”, and the girl from shock would either die or spend the rest of her days in a state of great distress.

Many of divination rites practiced on Hallowe’en were aimed at inducing a dream of one’s future lover. One method of achieving this was to eat a salted egg, a smoked herring, or some other food that would cause thirst  – in the hope that whilst asleep your future lover would come to your aid in a dream with a glass of water. Another rite, which was supposed to give you a glimpse future love while sleeping, involved gathering ten ivy or yarrow leaves – cut with a black handled knife, and without speaking a word. The tenth leaf was thrown away, while the remaining nine were sneaked into the house once everyone was asleep, and were then placed under a pillow in a sock or stocking, with only the following words uttered:-

“Nine ivy leaves I place under my head,

To dream of the living and not of the dead.

If ere I be married or wed unto thee,

To dream of her to-night, and her for to see,

The colour of her hair, and the clothes that she wears,

And the day that she’ll be wedded to me.”

* In some areas, including parts of County Mayo, both young women and men participated in this activity.


Donaldson, John. A Historical and Statistical Account of the Barony of Upper Fews in the County of Armagh, 1838.

McGlinchey, Charles, The Last of a Name

Wilde, Lady Jane. Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages in Ireland. 1890

Folklore, various articles, 1881-1916

Journal of the Kildare Historical and Archaeological Society, 1908

Processions, Tributes & the Láir Bhán at Samhain

Cork –

Illustration by Niamh Ní Ruairc of Wytchwood Creations, 2016.

William Hackett, 1853;

‘It is not many years since on Samhain’s eve, 31st October, a rustic procession perambulated the district between Ballycotton and Trabolgan, along the coast.

The parties represented themselves as messengers of Muck Olla, in whose name they levied contributions on farmers; as usual they were accompanied by sundry youths, sounding lustily on cows’ horns; at the head of the procession was a figure enveloped in a white robe or sheet, having, as it were, the head of a mare, this personage was called the Láir Bhán, “the white mare,” he was a sort of president or master of ceremonies. A long string of verses was recited at each house.

In the second dispatch we distinctly mentioned two names savouring strongly of paganism, the archaeological reader will understand what they were. Though they did not disturb the decorum of the assembly, they would not have been allowed to be publicly uttered elsewhere, for these people, and, indeed, all our peasantry are very free from any coarse expressions.

The other verses purported to be uttered by a messenger of Muck Olla, in which it was set forth, that, owing to the goodness of that being, the farmer whom they addressed had been prosperous all his life, that his property would continue as long as he was liberal in his donations in honour of Muck Olla; giving a very uninviting account of the state in which his affairs would fall should the Muck Olla withdraw his favour, and visit him with the vengeance certain to follow any illiberal or churlish treatment of his men.

Whether it was owing to the charm of the poetry or the cogency of the appeal, the contributions were in general of a liberal scale, every description of gifts was bestowed, milk, butter, eggs, corn potatoes, wool, &c. To distribute the accumulated store, it was the regular practice for a sort of rural merchant or two to await the return of the group and purchase the whole stock, distributing each share to each according to conventional arrangement of the respective ranks.’

Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries Ireland, 1855.

Although Hackett believed the word Muck Olla to be a deity, the Irish Folklorist, Kevin Danaher, speculates that it could have its root in the Irish word for echo – macalla.

If you would like a print of the above drawing please contact Niamh Ní Ruairc at www.facebook.com/wytchwoodcreations/

Hallowe’en & the Dead Among Us

James Walter Gozzard 1888-1950

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.’


Hallowe’en Games

Roscommon, 31 October


Hugh James Byrne, 1907;

‘In Ireland, All Hollows Eve (October 31st), or, as it is generally called November night, is a general season for merry-making. In my native place in County Roscommon it is a favourite date for giving parties. A cake is made in nearly every house, and a ring, a coin, a sloe, and a chip of wood, are put into it which causes great excitement. The coin means riches, the one who gets the ring will be the married first, whoever gets the chip of wood (which stands for a coffin) will be the first to die, and the sloe denotes the longest liver, because the fairies are supposed to blight the sloes and haws and other berries on November night, so this will be the last eatable sloe of the year.

A favourite amusement is to get a tub full of water and put apples in it, and sometimes a sixpence or a threepenny piece; and the youngsters strip, and dip their heads in it, and try to pick up the apples or coin with their mouths. Sometimes a strip of wood is thrust through an apple, and a bit of a lighted candle stuck on each projecting end, then the apple is suspended from the ceiling by a doubled piece of string, which is twisted tightly so that in winds and unwinds itself, continually revolving, and the children compete to see who can catch it with their teeth. Needless to say, they more often grip the lighted candle, and get smeared with tallow, which of course is the best part of the fun.

The girls put nine grains of oats in their mouths, and go out without speaking, and walk about till they hear some man’s name mentioned; whatever christian name they first hear will be the name of their future husband.’

Folklore 1907.

Hallowe’en Pranks

  Roscommon –

Street scene

Hugh James Byrne;

‘The boys and young men play practical jokes. If there is a miserly man, a bad neighbour, in the place, they go into his garden and cut the cabbages and give them to some poor man. Then they knock on his door with a cabbage-head, and while he is chasing one party, the rest perhaps try to pull up the remaining cabbages. Sometimes they take 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. Another favourite trick is to tie all the door-knockers in a row of houses together, so that when one door is opened all the other knockers begin to rap.’

Folklore, 1907.

Hallowe’en Divination, with Keys, Cabbages and Nuts

Laois –


Miss A Watson (May 1893) Queen’s County;

‘When we were children Hallow Eve was always an occasion for practicing mysterious rites, the end and the aim of each being to foretell the future. The first thing always was to get an old iron spoon, filled with lead in scraps; this was held over a hot fire till it melted. Then a key, which must be the hall door key, was held over a tub of cold water, and the hot lead was poured through the wards of the key. The lead cooled in falling through the water, and when it had all settled in the bottom of the tub, the old nurse proceeded to read its surface. I don’t know whether there was originally one especial story of the “willow pattern” description, but I do know that the many that I heard all bore a family likeness. There was always a castle with a tower here, and a narrow winder there, and a knight riding to the door to deliver a beautiful lady who was imprisoned there. And of course the lady was the round-eyed child who was listening with bated breath, and who was eventually to marry said knight.’

Then you go out to the garden blindfolded, and each pull up a cabbage. If the cabbage was well grown the girl was to have a handsome husband, but woe betide the unlucky damsel who got one with a crooked stalk; her husband would be a stingy old man.

Then comes nut-burning, as an antidote to all this boisterous fun. You put two nuts on the bar and name them, but must not mention the names or all luck will vanish. If one hops off, then the pair will not marry; if one burns to a cinder and not the other, it is a case of unrequited love; but if both burn away steadily, they will marry and live happy ever after.’

Folklore 1893.