Modern Customs Rooted in Celtic Traditions at Halloween

Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo, Ireland, entry at Halloween

Did you know that Halloween began in Ireland? In fact, many of our modern day customs come from Celtic traditions at Halloween!

Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo, Ireland, entry at Halloween
Ashford Castle entry decorated for Halloween

The Origins of Halloween Come From Ireland

Halloween originated from the fire festival of Samhain (sow-in) and has been celebrated in Ireland for about 2,000 years.

Speak Irish  Samhain is also the Irish for November.

Samhain marked the division of the Celtic year, when light (summer) moved to dark (winter).

The festival began on October 31, the evening before the Celtic New Year on November 1st. On this evening the veil between the living and the spirit world was a thin veil. Pooka, banshees, and fairies, as well as other spirits, could travel freely.

Celtic Traditions at Halloween

Many of today’s Halloween traditions come from the customs of Samhain.

Ghouls roaming Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, County Clare, Ireland, at Halloween
Costumed ghouls at Bunratty Castle & Folk Park

Halloween Costumes

With so many spirits wandering the earth it was best to be prepared. Disguises were donned to confuse the spirits- if they thought you were also a spirit they wouldn’t carry you away! Costumes were also used to hide from the spirits of the dead who may hold a grudge!

What will your costume be this Halloween? Is it funny or scary?

Pumpkin carving at Westport House, Westport, County Mayo, Ireland
Pumpkin carving at Westport House

Carving Jack-o-Lanterns

On Samhain eve all fires were put out. Massive communal bonfires were lit, and from those embers all other fires were re-lit. To carry the embers home in the dark large root vegetables, usually turnips, were hollowed and carved to keep the ember aglow. The scary face was extra protection against the spirits.

Do you carve pumpkins for Halloween? 

Trick or Treat

Trick or Treat
Trick or Treat

This custom began in Ireland when children and the poor would go door to door prior to Samhain. In return for songs or prayers for the dead the beggars were offered food, kindling, or small coins.

Do you have a trick to earn your treat?

References If You Wish To Know More

Halloween in Ireland- 3 Spooktacular Castle Celebrations in the West

Celebrating Halloween in the West of Ireland

A Magical Halloween Stay at Ashford Castle

Learn more Halloween words in Irish!

Old Irish Customs that Survive in Modern Ireland with author Felicity Hayes-McCoy (podcast)

Enough is Plenty: A Year on the Dingle Peninsula by Felicity Hayes-McCoy (book; Amazon affiliate link)

Celtic Festivals– and introduction

The Symbols of Ireland

Irish sheep at Sheep's Head Peninsula

Quick- what’s the first thing you think of when you think of Ireland?


OK, now what’s the second thing?

Shamrocks in Ireland
Shamrocks in Ireland

Did you say shamrock? The green tri-leaved clover is often associated with Ireland thanks to St. Patrick who is said to have used the young clover to explain the Holy Trinity to the Celtic kings of Ireland in the 5th century.

Speak Irish: seamair óg (shamir og- it almost sounds like shamrock!) means ‘young plant’ in Irish.

 Symbols of Ireland

The prominence of the shamrock in Irish images, clothing, and tradition might lead you to think that it is the official symbol of Ireland. 

But though it it the flower of Ireland, the official symbol of Ireland is something different….

The Official Symbol of Ireland

Brian Boru Harp at Trinity College
The official emblem of Ireland is the harp. This Celtic harp, called the Brian Boru Harp, from the 14th or 15th century is on display at Trinity College in Dublin.

Ireland’s official emblem is the harp. Or, more specifically, the Celtic harp. The harp used as a model for the Presidential seal and Irish passports (as well as the world-wide symbol of Guinness) is the Brian Boru Harp, which is on display in the Old Library at Trinity College in Dublin.

Speak Irish: Cláirseach (clor-shuch) is the Irish word for harp.

Color a Celtic harp (printable)

More Irish Symbols

The shamrock and harp aren’t the only symbols that may cross your mind when you think of Ireland! 

How many of these symbols do you associate with Ireland?

Celtic knots Found on Irish dance dress and jewelry, these ‘never-ending’ knots were inspired by ancient carvings and the Book of Kells. 

Foy School of Irish Dance

Claddagh The heart, hands, and crown signify love, friendship, and loyalty. The claddagh ring is said to have been created by Richard Joyce in the late 17th century. 

gold claddagh ring

Brigid’s Cross This small cross woven of rushes are associated with St. Brigid of Kildare, one of Ireland’s patron saints.  These crosses are usually made to mark St. Brigid’s Day, February 1, and are usually set over doorways or windows to protect the home from harm.

Saint Brigid's cross By Culnacreann

Celtic Cross or High Cross  First appearing in the 9th century the Celtic Cross is a ringed cross on a stepped base. Made of stone these crosses are usually found at monastic centers or churches and are carved to depict biblical scenes.

Celtic Cross at Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, Ireland

Sheep It’s hard to imagine Ireland without sheep dotting the hills!

Irish sheep at Sheep's Head Peninsula

Leprechauns and pots of gold at the end of the rainbow Leprechauns are a fairy of Irish folklore known for cobbling shoes when not playing jokes on unsuspecting humans. Their wealth lies in pots of gold which can only be found at the end of the rainbow. If you capture a leprechaun it is said he will offer you three wishes in exchange for his release!

leprechaun with pot of gold at the end of the rainbow

What other symbols of Ireland can you think of?

References if you wish to know more:

Learn about Celtic knots on Irish dance dresses.

Read the legend of the Claddagh ring.

Learn about the colors of Ireland.