‘Is an Irish Halloween better than other countries? I’ve told myself it is’

This is our children’s first time celebrating Halloween in Ireland - do people still eat monkey nuts?

This will be the first time my daughters will be celebrating Halloween in Ireland as we're not going away for the mid-term break. I don't know what to expect from this celebration, though I'm sure it won't be the same as when I was young, the mystical memories of which I carried around with me during my many years of living (and parenting) abroad.

For years I’ve been telling our two girls: “ah well an Irish Halloween is the real thing, it’s all genuine there, spooky and authentic. The bangers and the bonfires can be a bit annoying but it’s all good fun with real meaning”. But has it all become commercial and over the top, as I’ve been hearing from friends and colleagues? Or is that unique Samhain spirit, which never really translated abroad, still something a child can feel in Ireland?

Our daughters grew up in Italy and Norway two countries which, like other European nations, are still catching up to celebrating Halloween. It's seen as another American holiday, one that's quite like Carnival season (celebrated at the beginning of Lent) but really quite foreign and plainly just an opportunity for kids to dress up with ever-grosser face makeup and expect free sweets from disgruntled neighbours.

But our girls did get a nice taste of an Irish Halloween when they were very little in Norway. The ever-resourceful local Irish mammies of Oslo organised a party in a church hall each Halloween year where apples-on-a-string and other fun and games helped give the local half-Irish kids a blast of their ancient (non-Viking) heritage. One year, I even put in the considerable effort to make a barmbrack from scratch, just to get free entrance to the party.


Carnival is still a big event for kids in both Norway and Italy, and our kids loved dressing up for it each year, and even parading through the streets. The kids’ costumes tend to be more shop-bought fairy-and-cowboy than zombie-and-dead-doll, but we found a way to stretch our costumes over both holidays, especially as we often made them ourselves.

In both countries, Halloween feels like a weird mix of autumnal carnival and semi-religious holiday, and even though they’re so different All-Souls Day on November 1st is still an important celebration, with graveside candles lighting many cemeteries.

Our final Halloween in our small Tuscan town was one of our favourites. Most of the residents and local businesses had been warned in advance by some enterprising parents to expect gangs of rowdy ghouls asking for “dolcetto o scherzetto” (“little sweet or little joke”) and to have goodies on hand to dole out to them. Around the piazza, the centre of things, the swarms of kids were handed out scoops of gelato from the gelateria, some cookies from the bakery, a taste of salami from the butcher, and best of all was the parish priest - cassock and all - standing on the steps of the church at the top of the piazza with a kilo bag of sweets and a bemused smile on his face!

As we made our way back down our own road, fewer houses looked inviting. We knocked on the door of the only neighbours at home in our block and they were kind enough to interrupt their dinner and seat us down while they dug around and found a half-eaten box of expensive chocolates.

As adults we tend to recreate what childhood memories we can and invent new ones for our own families. Being a family that moved from country to country, we have picked up our own seasonal celebrations and memories from each place to create a collage of our own traditions. Our Halloween ones just might come to a jarring halt when we see a full on 2019 Halloween in suburban Dublin.

The shops are stocked full of disposable costumes and plastic skeletons, while in the food section the seasons are all mixed up: bags of Halloween sweets and monkey nuts (surely no-one eats them now either?) sit next to Christmas selection boxes and chocolate santas, and around the corner are big bags of the raisins, cherries and suet that remind me I’ve done nothing yet about the puddings.

“Can we go to a pumpkin patch and get a pumpkin to carve?” asks one daughter. Since when did people grow pumpkins in Ireland? I wonder, while I tune into the radio ad offering them for 79 cents at our local German discount supermarket.

We’re hearing plenty of bangs, whizzes and pops around the place, though I’m amazed to learn that fireworks still need to be brought down from over the Border, or somehow acquired online. Bonfires are obviously still a big thing. Last week I watched a bunch of lads proudly dragging their loot of wooden pallets and a giant wooden bobbin over the Luas line on O’Connell Street.

Neighbours tell me that our road is a good one for the kids on Halloween and it’s become a much bigger deal. Indeed one mum, an American, says it’s “much more like the States”. Does this even mean that they’ll all have given in to saying “trick or treat” by this stage and not our more descriptive doorstop request “would you have anything for the Halloween party?

I was glad to hear that kids here can still get asked to perform a party piece or at least explain their costume; a task I was hard-pressed to do the year my own mother threw a last-minute outfit of seven hats on my 10-year-old head before I ran out the door after the older kids.

Apart from all the changes and plastic pumpkins and gory makeup, still, I hope our kids will find some of that magic I remember from my own childhood.

My memories of a 1970/80s suburban Dublin Halloween are no doubt selective, but I recall how we’d collect meagre handfuls of sweets, monkey nuts and rusty coins in our Roches Stores bags. I remember everyone but me being allowed to go off down to the green to watch the bonfire while I’d be sent home to help Mum get the “party” ready and wait for the others so we could all empty out our bags and then fight over sharing the sweets and getting rid of the nuts. We’d tuck into the last of the barm brack (my sister having found the ring as usual) and the apples and coins would be tossed into a bucket of water for a game of near-drowning. Luckily for me, ghost stories were not a thing in our house but they weren’t unusual.

As the darkness outside seemed to close in around us, the inside of the house seemed to glow with sweet things, and company. And safety. We all stayed home, the door was closed to the rest of the night and to the spirits to do whatever they had to do - that strange carnival of souls (or more likely, just the rowdier local kids) stirring up the energy outside while you’d head to your bed. Next morning you could wake up and know it was all done with for the year. It was the first day of November, and the saints were now in charge for their own big day out.

 Emma Prunty writing a series on her experiences of settling back into Dublin after many years abroad and seeing it with fresh eyes, along with her family of foreigners. After living in the UK, US, Canada, Norway and Italy she knows there are pros and cons to every place you move to. She blogs at washyourlanguage.com