Halloween: Forget pumpkins – carved turnips are truly frightening

Carving scary faces on to autumnal vegetables, an old Irish tradition, is a great way to terrify the neighbours

A turnip can be carved, but perhaps a more pertinent question might be why carve a turnip? Well, if you want to give a nod to the ancient traditions of Samhain, the turnip is your best bet.

It’s become customary at this time of year to spill the guts of pumpkins and carve scary faces into their flesh. The pumpkin is an ideal canvas; its flesh is easy to carve and its size provides ample space for creepy creative expression.

But it’s not exactly traditional, particularly in Ireland. Carving scary faces on to autumnal vegetables is an old Irish tradition but, instead of pumpkins, our ancestors used turnips to scare their neighbours. It’s believed that when Irish immigrants moved to the US, the native pumpkin was adopted for Halloween purposes.

If you’re going traditional, beware: turnips are a divil to carve, which perhaps explains the crude (but bone-chillingly terrifying) designs of examples you’ll find from the past. The Museum of Country Life in Castlebar, Co Mayo, boasts an ancient and thoroughly ghastly “ghost turnip” as part of its permanent exhibition on Samhain and Hallowe’en. This turnip is a truly terrifying jack-o’-lantern. “People do recoil when they see it in the flesh,” says Tony Candon, the manager keeper of the museum. “There’s a fascination with it – it sends a shiver down the spine. It’s quite small but it’s very powerful.”


Ancient Celtic tradition

Candon explains the links between Hallowe’en and the ancient Celtic tradition of Samhain. “It’s a tradition to mark the end of autumn and the beginning of the dark period of winter. The boundaries between light and dark, this world and the other world, can be a little less firm than the rest of the year. The wearing of masks and carving of turnips were to give us that ghoulish feeling, and it was also a way of warding off the evil spirits. If you are wearing a mask it’s a way of getting control over the other world by binding the spirits. The modern Hallowe’en been been expanded way beyond its traditional concept but you can see what it’s based on.”

Family freiendly

You can visit the museum in Castlebar, Co Mayo, for its family friendly Hallowe’en activities, such as Spooky Tales with Rab Fulton, taking place on Saturday, October 27th, at 11.30am and 2pm.

On Wednesday, October 31st, you can learn how families celebrated Hallowe'en long ago and learn to make "spooky shadow puppets" with artist Carmel Balfe. All events are free but booking is required. museum.ie/countrylife