Ireland’s Ancient Roots of Halloween

This piece also appeared in the Calgary Herald – you can read it by clicking here.

Animal mask in hand, I could hear the music of the procession get closer, and I eagerly waited with hundreds of others gathered on the historic streets of the town of Trim. Lanterns began to sway as people of all ages parted to make room for the mythical creature Puca, who was leading the procession. With a piercing animal skull face and long black hair, you certainly wouldn’t want to be in her way.

Staring solemnly ahead, Puca made her way past me with a gaggle of creatures bobbing and weaving throughout the crowd. Safely behind her, I stepped off the curb and joined the procession. The mood wasn’t the dark or spooky feeling that we’ve come to associate with modern Halloween, rather one of celebration. Walking slowly to the beat of the music, I made my way along with the ghouls and ghosts towards Trim Castle, and the start of Samhain.

The Puca Festival celebrates Samhain, the ancient roots of Halloween. (Photo: Paula Worthington) 

Do you love Halloween? You have the Irish to thank for that.

As most of North America tidies up tiny candy wrappers and lays carved pumpkins to rest in the compost, few consider the ancient roots of its traditions.

Long before echoes of “Trick or Treat”, playful costumes, pumpkins and Hollywood horror flicks, Ireland’s Ancient Celts celebrated the original Halloween.

The Puca Festival celebrates Samhain, the ancient roots of Halloween. (Photo: Paula Worthington) 

Samhain (pronounced sow-win), meaning “summer’s end”, was first celebrated more than 2,000 years ago, and marked the end of the harvest season. As the midway point between the fall equinox and winter solstice, it was a time for the Celts to feast on the fruits of their labour as they prepared for the darker days of winter.

Trim Castle is the largest Norman castle in Ireland. (Photo: Paula Worthington) 

It also marked the start of a new year (November 1), and it was believed that the end of the year was a time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead thinned. Centuries later, we call it Halloween, but its roots are firmly planted here.

If you really want to learn about the history of Ireland firsthand, head north of Dublin to the Ancient East region in County Meath.

Older than the Egyptian Pyramids

At Brύ na Bόinne, meaning “palace” of the Boyne, you’ll find the massive Neolithic mounds of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, dating back some 5,000 years, making them older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. Beyond their impressive size (Knowth is 95 metres wide), the mounds are much more than what first meets the eye.

The mysterious mounds at Brύ na Bόinne. (Photo: Paula Worthington) 

They house carefully carved passage tombs, Neolithic art and, at Newgrange, the entire passageway is mysteriously illuminated from the rays of the sun on the winter solstice.

The reasons why these mounds were created poses more questions than answers about the past. They are undoubtedly sacred and were of great importance to the Neolithic people. Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and gives modern-day visitors a chance to contemplate the mystery of our collective past.

Megalithic art at Brύ na Bόinne. (Photo: Paula Worthington) 

The Birthplace of Halloween

The area surrounding ancient Brύ na Bόinne is also steeped in powerful history. The nearby Hill of Tara was once the meeting place of the high kings of Ireland, while it is on the Hill of Slane where it is believed that St. Patrick lit the first paschal fire in his quest to bring Christianity to Ireland. The Hill of Ward or Tlachtga was where the Samhain fires were traditionally lit by the druids, from which all fires throughout Ireland were rekindled for a new year. Today, the Hill of Ward is still an important gathering place at Samhain where some of those traditions and fires are recreated.

A Celtic cross in the town of Kells. (Photo: Paula Worthington) 

The surrounding towns of Athboy, Trim and Drogheda are perfectly situated to celebrate the traditions of Samhain, which culminated in the first-ever Puca Festival, held Oct. 31 to Nov. 2.

Modern-day Meets Tradition at the Puca Festival

As our procession made its way through the curved, narrow streets of Trim, more people joined the snaking parade. In the background, Trim castle was illuminated with massive projections, its old stone walls coming to life with light and movement. The music grew louder, and the procession itself turned into a street party scene. Just like the connections between the living and the dead, Samhain is as much about the light as the dark.

The Puca Festival celebrates Samhain, the ancient roots of Halloween. (Photo: Paula Worthington) 

Trim, with its fortress-like 12th Century castle (which was used in key scenes in Braveheart) set the scene for the kickoff of the Puca Festival.

Puca, the namesake of the Ancient East’s Halloween Festival, is known as a shapeshifter and spirit, with the power to alter the fortunes of all who cross her path – whether they be good or bad.

It’s believed that during ancient Samhain, if people needed to leave their dwellings after dark, they would don a costume to not be recognized by lingering spirits roaming among the living. Some left food and wine for the spirits, laying the roots for modern-day “trick or treating”.

These types of traditions continued to evolve over the centuries, eventually coming to Canada and the U.S. with the mass immigration of the Irish in the 19th century, helping to form our modern-day Halloween traditions.

Trim Castle is aglow during the Puca Festival. (Photo: Paula Worthington) 

The History of Ireland Flows through the Boyne

Oscar Wilde’s father William once said of the River Boyne that “The history of Ireland might be written in tracing its banks.” The quiet river meanders past many of the area’s ancient sites, and it bore witness to the famous Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Today, visitors can paddle sections of the Boyne in traditional currachs, which were also used in the filming of Game of Thrones in Ireland.

A traditional currach along the River Boyne. (Photo: Paula Worthington) 

Slane Castle also sits on the River Boyne and was popularized in the 1980s as a venue for large-scale rock concerts from the likes of U2, Bruce Springsteen, Thin Lizzy and more. Despite suffering a devastating fire in the 1990s, Slane has since been re-built and was aglow for a Puca Festival feast, sharing tales of ancient Samhain and driving away spirits with lively music and a taste of its latest local treasure, Slane whiskey.

Slane Castle celebrates Samhain with a feast and entertainment. (Photo: Paula Worthington) 

A New Year Dawns

While the veil between the living and the dead is once again lowered as Samhain ends, the mystery and folklore of Ireland’s Ancient East is evident all year long. Castles, abbeys, towers and churches that span nearly every century from the past 2,000 years provide an incredible backdrop to get immersed in Ireland’s stories, myths and folklore. While Puca may choose to stay in the shadows when you visit, the celebratory spirit of Samhain lives on in Ireland’s Ancient East.

For more information about Puca Festival and the region, visit and


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s