Find the roots of Samhain with the spirits of the Aran Islands

Sick of the commercialism of Hallowe’en nowadays? Want to return to Samhain’s roots? Well maybe it’s time to take a trip to the Aran Islands, says Ken Phelan, and check out the vibrant local traditions of All-Hallow’s Eve

Find the roots of Samhain with the spirits of the Aran Islands

The islanders of Inis Mór take Halloween rather seriously; when Halloween descends you would be forgiven for thinking you were in a Boris Karloff movie rather than on the largest of the Aran islands. On Inis Mór, a different brand of horror is in play, one which has been passed down through generations, and is infinitely more ghoulish.

On Halloween, an eerie silence befalls Inis Mór, for it is tradition that no-one speaks of until midnight, the witching hour. People dress up, as is the customary Halloween tradition, but faces are hidden and a cloak of anonymity worn so that neighbour will not recognise neighbour.

In the past, rather than source masks in Galway, locals would make their own from the skins of dead animals. Typically this would be a rabbit, which was skinned then used to make a rather novel head piece. Bram Stoker himself could not think of something more fiendish. For those of whom are averse to skinning rabbits, a small shop on the west of the island sells rubber masks of the Pope, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and more.

Some locals plan elaborate costumes months in advance of the day itself. Home-made costumes garner the most respect in the close-knit community, which has kept the true Halloween tradition alive for generations.

In Kilronan, the island’s main village, people flock to the pubs to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve, a time when spirits walk amongst the living (then stumble home at closing time). Even ordering a drink on Inis Mór invokes ominous tones, for on Halloween, in keeping with the vow of silence, scraps of paper with handwritten orders are passed to bar staff who wilfully comply.

Locals even drink through straws lest they reveal their deathly faces, and a customer who might order a Guinness would order maybe a gin instead, to hide his identity. In keeping with strict anonymity, utter silence prevails until midnight.

The tradition of Halloween can be traced back some two thousand years ago with Samhain ( pronounced ‘sow in’), marking the end of harvest and a time when the dead would roam the land of the living. This later became known as All Hallow’s Eve, a time when animals would be sacrificed by the ancient Celts, and eventually as Halloween.

Visitors to the island enjoying Halloween at Joe Watty’s pub on Inis Mór.
Visitors to the island enjoying Halloween at Joe Watty’s pub on Inis Mór.

Celtic priest and local of Inis Mór, Dara Molloy says: “To go out on Halloween here you have to hide your identity, because everybody knows everybody else. People might not know whether you’re a man or a woman underneath your outfit. I think that people on the island are more loyal to the tradition of the ritual of Halloween; this is a very ancient tradition that pre-dates Christianity.

The islanders here have managed to preserve it very very well, whereas it’s been diluted in the rest of the country, and even more so in America. Very remote people in very remote places tend to preserve some of the ancient practices more than modern society does.

The traditions are part of the mythology of the early Irish who believed that Halloween night, because it was the night between the old and new year, was sort of a gateway into the other world.

These creatures that come out at night all dressed up, they represent the other world creatures, so the drama being played out through the ritual is of the other world creatures blending with those of this world. It was all part of a mythology that people believed in, and in a way were afraid of.

People also believed that on Halloween night not only could other world creatures appear in our world, but that we could disappear into their world as well. So it was a dangerous night; we’ve had a few suicides here at Halloween where people have chosen to take their lives on that particular night. So it shows that it’s more serious than just a game, or just fun.

Visitors to the island enjoying Halloween at Joe Watty’s pub on Inis Mór.
Visitors to the island enjoying Halloween at Joe Watty’s pub on Inis Mór.

A lot of people are attracted to the island and want to be part of the atmosphere; we’ve had camera crews here, and not just Irish ones - international camera crews have come over to film the occasion, so it attracts a lot of attention.”

When all is done, and the locals arise the next day, it is the hangovers that renew the vow of silence, broken perhaps by the occasional moan or groan; slowly, the real horror of Inis Mór unveils.

Here the living dead, the bravest of them all, venture again toward the local pub, forlorn and desolate, to be consumed once more - in salvation or in ruin - by a deathly cure...

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