An Irishman's Diary
‘DID YOU know that Halloween, which is famous the world over, began at the Hill of Ward in County Meath?” asks an ad in the latest edition of Primary Times magazine. And no, I have to admit, that knowledge had somehow escaped me until now. But whether it’s true or not, I congratulate the canny people of Athboy – home of the aforementioned hill – and its environs on their bid to claim market leadership of a global industry.
Already the county formerly known as royal has rebranded itself “Meath: the Home of Halloween”. And the message will be promoted by the inaugural “Spirits of Meath” festival, which begins this weekend and continues for the rest of the month, promising “spooky tours”, “gory tales”, “murder mystery weekends” and other such thrills. All, as the promotional message puts, “only a short broom-stick ride from Dublin”.
Before this, Meath’s reputation for scaring people from Dublin and elsewhere has rested mainly with its Gaelic footballers. These have a vampire-like ability to rise from the dead at short notice and suck the blood of other teams. As recently as last year, for example, Meath football appeared to have been safely buried at a crossroads at midnight with a stake through its heart. Now it’s on the prowl again and no-one is safe.
Nevertheless, the county’s claim to Halloween does appears to have some foundation. The Hill of Ward, or Tlachtga as it was formerly known, was the site of a pre-Christian fire festival celebrated on Samhain, the Celtic New Year. It even still has visible earthworks from that era. But shrewdly, the county is not pinning its Halloween paternity claims on that one hill alone.
October 31st is, essentially, a “Day of the Dead” festival. And courtesy of its wealth of ancient burial sites, like Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth, and Loughcrew, Meath is home to large numbers of people who, while their identity may be a mystery, are undoubtedly more dead than almost anyone else in Ireland. This lends added authority to the county’s claims for dominance of the Halloween market-place.
And what a market. If the pages of Primary Times(a freesheet distributed through primary schools in Dublin) are a guide, Halloween now rivals Christmas as a children’s festival.
Meath apart, the huge demand for child-frightening products and services at this time is being catered from by everything from Dublin Zoo (“Boo at the Zoo“) to Lullymore Bog Heritage park in Kildare (“For the Fright of Your Life”). Dublin City Council has even set up a corner of its website entitled “What’s Scary about Halloween?” with a helpful area-by-area guide to your nearest ghoulish happening, in the same way it advertises bring centres.
And these are just the entertainment events. Halloween is everywhere else you look.
If you have young children, chances are you will also have been contributing of late to the booming fancy-dress clothing sector – what with the school Halloween party now being only slightly less expensive than First Communion day.
Then there are the supermarkets. People of a nervous disposition are advised to avoid these until November, before which it has become obligatory for the fruit and vegetable sections to be decorated with skeletons, zombies, werewolves and other variations of the undead, reminding us to buy our pumpkins, nuts and barmbracks, before it’s too late.
Meanwhile, the market for domestic Halloween decorations is also growing fast. Walking home the other night, I experienced a brief but genuine scare when a gust of wind temporarily dislodged a life-sized witch from the front of a house she was fastened to, causing her to become partly airborne. I nearly became airborne too.
But such sights will soon be as ubiquitous in October as flashing Santas are in December.
That Halloween has become such a big business is, of course, thanks to the US. In its original Irish form, the event did not involve much buying and selling. The key feature of it where I grew up was a kind of low-level vandalism, where the small boys of the neighbourhood pretended to be evil spirits for the night. The service was provided free, except for a levy known as “trick or treat”: a low-level protection racket that enabled households to insure themselves against worse damage.
This and the other traditions of Halloween travelled to North America with our emigrants. Essentially, as is the fate of all developing economies, we exported the cheap raw materials for the festival, lacking the inclination or wherewithal to process them ourselves. Then the Yanks developed the ingredients into a more sophisticated product, with slick packaging, and exported it back to us at a large mark-up.
It is control of this value-added product that Meath is now attempting to seize with its bold “Home of Halloween” strategy. At the very least, the county could secure the Irish franchise, under license. But with enough ambition and clever marketing, the people behind the festival could soon have tourists flocking to it not just from the US but all over the world.
There is a helpful precedent in the form of St Patrick’s Day. For centuries, this wasn’t so much celebrated here as endured. Then the Americans turned it into into something saleable. And in the 1990s, belatedly realising there was a market for large-scale celebrations featuring the colour green, Dublin reinvented itself as the home of Paddy’s Day. Now at last the world is buying that product from us: which is only right, after all.